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

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


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

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

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

Publication Data:

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

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

2196About this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is this book worth your time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UnknownNotes for the Collector:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death on the Diamond (1934)

Death on the Diamond

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

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

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

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

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

About this film:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

My favourite strict-form puzzle mystery films (part 2)

This is part 2 of a post from perhaps a week ago.  These are in no particular order. “Strict-form”, to me, means that there is a mystery as a major part of the plot and it can be solved by an intelligent and observant viewer, because all the clues are displayed fairly. And I’ll note here that I say “favourite”; not necessarily the best, but these are the ones I can watch again and again, and recommend to friends.

I have to say that for one or two of these I don’t have a copy at hand to screen, and that’s a dangerous thing for a commentator.  I’ll make that clear if that is the case, in case I get a detail wrong..

And_Then_There_Were_None__1945_And Then There Were None (1945)

This is the first filmed version of an Agatha Christie piece usually known as Ten Little Indians, which has been remade multiple times.  In fact, I’ve amused myself in the past by screening a bunch of versions one after the other … including the wonderfully insane Gumnaam from 1965 in Bollywood.  Gumnaam has four songs in it instead of just the traditional performance at the beginning by victim #1, and that’s merely the first of the differences. Check it out if you can.

You know the story: ten people show up in an entirely isolated place (over the years it’s been an island, a Swiss castle, an Iranian hotel, and an African safari).  One by one they are killed by a mysterious figure called U. N. Owen (unknown) and they slowly come to realize that U. N. Owen is a member of the party … as little china figurines disappear one by one from the dining room table.  There is a surprise ending that I won’t include here;  you’ll be familiar with it anyway but there’s always that one person in a billion who hasn’t hit this piece of art yet, and they deserve to have it unsullied.

As promised, this is a strict-form mystery; I venture to say, though, that the crucial clue will escape your notice, mostly because it’s not really shown very well. We are told that something has happened and not really shown its results in order to assess whether what we have been told is accurate. As well, two of the characters are said to be collaborating, and a knowledge of the personality and intimate habits of one of them is necessary to the functioning of the murder plot; I don’t see that it’s possible to have obtained that information even though it’s indicated (possibly in the book — I tend to get these things mixed up) that it was indeed obtained by the murderer.

Gumnaam (1)This version was directed by Rene Clair, who has created here a nearly perfect film. I will be the first to say that this perfection is quite modest; the film occupies a limited philosophical space and fills it admirably, but this is not high art.  This is merely a very, very, VERY good B-movie.  The casting is wonderful, the script is delightful, photography is great and other technical elements are well-done. There are standout performances from Walter Huston as the alcoholic doctor, Barry Fitzgerald as the kindly old judge, and Judith Anderson as the censorious old biddy. Even tiny roles like Richard Haydn’s butler are imbued with depth and accuracy far beyond the scope of most B-movies.  Most importantly there is an air of gentle humour about the whole production that hasn’t been imposed; it grows in a really natural way from the actors and their interactions.  (I credit Barry Fitzgerald for this; he would have a wry twinkle in his eye under almost every circumstance.) I know it’s hard to believe that a film with ten murders, some quite violent, can have gentle humour; Rene Clair brings it off.

As I said, this has been remade many times, but most of the remakes are less about the characterization and more about the gimmicks.  In one version (1965) the elderly spinster played here by Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca) is replaced by Dahlia Lavi, who has large breasts and little talent. Of course, that’s what was missing from a really complete production of an Agatha Christie novel — tits! That’s what brings the guys in, after all.  (groan)  The 1965 version  stops the action just before the first death for a musical performance by, of all people, Fabian, and also offers the Whodunnit Break, which stops the action just before the climax to give you sixty seconds to guess the killer’s identity. So I do recommend that you start with the best and then proceed to enjoy how this lovely work devolves over the years until in 2005 it became — a computer game. Actually a rather good one as these things go, but considerably altered in every respect.

Card_Cape2The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935)

I am not a big fan of most of the adaptations of Ellery Queen material, but this one has consistency and common sense, and a good cast.  Although this is one film a copy of which I couldn’t put my hands on immediately, I’ve seen it a number of times and always enjoyed it. It’s close to the original book. Ellery and a friend go to the country — Spanish Cape, by the water — for a rustic vacation, and a young girl next door and her uncle are set upon; the uncle is kidnapped but the kidnappers apparently believe him to be a different person, a houseguest named John Marco, whom they’ve been sent to “get”. Uncle David hasn’t returned, and the next morning Marco is found dead on a terrace wearing only a bathing suit and a full-length opera cape. (In the book, he is also minus the bathing suit, but nudity in the movies was not yet countenanced.)

More bodies pile up and Ellery (Donald Cook) digs to the bottom of things in a fairly straightforward way; the central idea, why Marco’s body is dressed the way it is, is sensibly investigated and laid plain. It is very difficult to figure out whodunnit, mostly because so much else is going on in the plot, but once you realize the implications of the clothing, there can only really be one murderer. In the meantime, Ellery romances the daughter of the house, played by the pretty and talented Helen Twelvetrees.

dvd197The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

Any person who’s even vaguely heard of old black-and-white mysteries may have heard of this one, or even seen it.  According to Wikipedia, a film historian named William K. Everson pronounced it a masterpiece in the pages of Films in Review. I like it slightly less than that, but it is an extremely good film nevertheless. It is one of the most approachable complex-murder-plot stories for the viewer because William Powell, here playing dilettante detective Philo Vance, brings his usual air of debonair competence to the role. Since he masters this so easily, we think, of course we could too. Mary Astor plays the heiress at the heart of the action with great skill and a certain edge of arrogance that makes us dislike her a bit; the familiar tubby figure and gravelly voice of Eugene Pallette as Sergeant Heath of the police force anchor this film in familiar territory. Similarly familiar figures in small roles like Etienne Girardot, James Lee, Helen Vinson, and Paul Kavanagh are an important factor in lifting this film to excellence.

The real attraction is the plot, though, and it is very unusual for a filmed mystery; it is accurate to the original, and the original is a difficult and complicated mystery involving the locking of a door from the outside while the key is inside (Philo shows you how). Archer Coe is that familiar thing of detective fiction, the wealthy man enmeshed in plots who quarrels with everyone in his life and then is found murdered in a room locked from the inside. Philo Vance knows the family because of their mutual interest in show dogs (hence Kennel) and investigates Coe’s murder as the first in a bloodbath that culminates when a prize Doberman who has been injured by the murderer returns to seek its revenge, prompting the murderer to confess.  In between there are plots involving a collection of rare Chinese porcelain, Coe’s mistress and neighbour, and his niece Hilda (Mary Astor) and her suitors — and also his quarrels with his brother Brisbane. Brisbane turns up dead in short order, though, and things are very messy until Philo Vance works it all out.


Really, this might be the most difficult method of murder ever successfully described on film; your instinct will be to rewind at least once when Philo is showing you how the string and pins are hooked together to lock the door from the outside. (Note that this differs from what I said about Miracles for Sale recently, which has the most complicated plot stuffed into 71 minutes ever successfully described on film.) The ending is the classic reconstruction of the crime, in this case using a charming little scale model of two apartment buildings to demonstrate the motivation for some of the actions around Coe’s death with what passed for trick photography in 1933. Exquisite stuff; there are also photographic innovations like zooming the POV in through a keyhole to see the dead body.  A clever plot, fine actors, innovation and intelligence all combine to produce a film you will want to see more than once.

zbish The Bishop Murder Case (1930)

Before Kennel, there was an earlier adaptation of a 1928 Philo Vance best-seller by S. S. Van Dine.  This is another of my favourites, mostly because it is so much fun to see Basil Rathbone as a different detective than Sherlock Holmes, with whom he is so closely identified. Those of you who are not enthusiastic mystery fans may find this a bit harder going, though. All existing prints appear to be muddy and dark, to my eye; the sound quality is poor (admittedly, this was a new thing for 1930); and the director appears to be instructing the actors to use techniques more appropriate to the pre-talkie, all rolling eyes and head-tossing to express strong emotion.

Nevertheless, there is much here to enjoy. For those familiar with the novel, you will find an extremely faithful representation in nearly every detail, albeit set among a group of people who live in rooms with impossibly high ceilings. (Set design was also in its infancy.) The story has points of interest. The first victim is a Mr. Joseph Cochrane Robin, who is found killed by an arrow with a note pinned to his chest signed by “The Bishop” and some mention of “Who killed Cock Robin?” Subsequent crimes also involve various verses from Mother Goose, and this is an extraordinary concept for the investigators, who immediately postulate insanity of the highest order. I know, right? But this is 1930, and thousands of serial killer novels have not yet been written on every permutation of the idea of killing a string of victims according to a motif. And then, of course, in 1936, Agatha Christie published The A.B.C. Murders and gave us the idea of someone who only pretends to kill according to a motif. This case actually started us off with that idea, as well as a number of other related ones. In this case, the murderer is attempting to throw suspicion upon a specific person by his choice of motif, and have this person executed by the state without having to sully his hands with actually killing that particular individual himself.  So he kills a couple of others instead; hard to figure, but what the heck, he was crazy. Anyway, if that sort of modern novel is of interest to you, well, here is the one that pretty much started it all, in a funky old movie for your viewing pleasure.


In the meantime, in the 88-minute running time, we get not only a string of crimes but some information about archery, “modern” physics, chess, and the plays of Henrik Ibsen, one of which contains a central if obscure clue to what’s going on. I’m sorry to say that this movie hasn’t aged well, though, or perhaps it’s just that in 83 years the social context has changed so much that some things that would have been known to the 1930 viewer are completely lost on the 2013 one. There’s a brief scene, for instance, where a comedic maid is shown using a vacuum cleaner. No biggie, thinks today’s youngster, unaware that this meant in 1930 that your household was very wealthy and possessed every luxury, because the vacuum probably cost more than a year’s worth of the maid’s services. It’s hard for us to understand today how a wealthy brownstone in Manhattan could have a private archery range in the back yard. And how a bunch of unattended children in Central Park can run up to a pretty young blonde and ask her to read them a story, no parents or nannies in sight.

There’s another strange thing about this movie that doesn’t really sink in until later. Philo Vance (Rathbone) figures out whodunnit and gathers a group in the library. Vance realizes that the murderer has built an elaborate edifice of craziness that points at a third person as the murderer; the real killer plans to poison that third person at this gathering and give every impression of suicide upon being found out. Rather than make a big fuss, Vance merely switches the glasses; the murderer dies. (In the book, Vance makes a remark to the effect of, “Oh, I’ve saved the hangman the trouble. Hope you don’t mind, Mr. District Attorney.”) I have to say, this is quite a bit beyond the normal realm of, say, Ellery Queen or Perry Mason, both of whom prefer to let the wheels of justice grind exceeding small. Very few likeable detectives commit cold-blooded murder and completely get away with it, but Vance not only walks but we feel everyone around him is saying, “Oh, thanks for taking care of that messy task, Philo. See you next murder.”

bmc100So this can be a problematic film; it can be dark and unattractive and hard to hear, and some of its meaning has been lost over time. But it’s based on a book that is a cornerstone of modern detective fiction, and it has Basil Rathbone for the detective, years before he portrayed Sherlock Holmes. And as crime fiction goes, it seems to take place in an unkinder, more Nietzschean time; a little bit like a cross between film noir and Sherlock Holmes. I think you should check it out.

More to come in part 3. This will certainly comprise a number of entries from the long-running Charlie Chan franchise, which probably provided more strict-form puzzles than any other film series.


To the best of my knowledge, each of the above-noted films is available from the usual sources: Amazon and eBay are where I would start, but there are many inexpensive sources if you know where to look.

Miracles For Sale (1939)

Miracles For Sale 

14806Author: Screenplay by Harry Ruskin & Marion Parsonnet and James Edward Grant, based on the “Great Merlini” novel Death From a Top Hat written by Clayton Rawson.

Harry Ruskin was a prolific writer of, among other things, a double handful of Dr. Kildare films and “additional dialogue” for The Glass Key. (Mr.) Marion Parsonnet wrote the screenplay for GildaCover Girl, B-movies and some television episodes. James Edward Grant seems to have been a kind of two-fisted specialist with a long career primarily focused on Westerns and war movies.

And of course, based on the Great Merlini novel by Clayton Rawson noted above.

Other Data:  71 minutes long. Released August 14, 1939, according to IMDB.  Art direction by Cedric Gibbons and wardrobe by Dolly Tree. I don’t ordinarily mention the wardrobe mistress by name, but I have to say, her work here is extraordinary. There is no Wikipedia page for Dolly Tree, and someone should rectify this, based on what little I could find on the Internet.  Anyway, Florence Rice gets to wear two absolutely amazing evening gowns that a fashionable woman of seventy-five years later would have no problems wearing to the right event. They both have a very unusual shoulder treatment that is really attractive, a kind of Judy Jetson effect of multiple tiers. I’ll show you a picture below; these have to be seen to be believed.

miraclesforsale1939_ff_188x141_071020130425Directed by Tod Browning — indeed, his last film before retirement. This is not much more than a B picture in intent, I think, but he gave it a professional polish and treatment. I’m not an expert on Browning’s work, but it occurs to me that the unusual occupations of the characters are what attracted him to this piece.

Cast: Robert Young as Mike Morgan (because The Great Merlini needed his name simplified, apparently). Florence Rice as Judy Barclay, Frank Craven as Dad Morgan. Among the suspects are Henry Hull, Lee Bowman, Astrid Allwyn, Frederick Worlock, Gloria Holden and William Demarest (of My Three Sons fame).

About this film:

Spoiler warning: I must announce at this point that the concepts I want to discuss about this film cannot be explored without revealing most of the ending of the film, and the twists that underlie some events.  You should also be aware that there is a novel called Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson to which you will find out the ending, plot, etc. 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.   

Thank you, TCM, for providing the original trailer.

There are not many films that are strict-form whodunits that are actually solvable by the viewer. I admit whenever I encounter one these days, it usually takes me a couple of tries to work out if, and then exactly how, the director has made a clear logical path available for me. First I have to understand what’s being asserted as the solution, and then I have to look to see if indeed it’s possible to figure that out from what is on the screen. I have to look at the film a couple of times with my little notebook at hand, marking time points with plot points.

I didn’t do that here. My rate of posting is down to around once a month as it is.  If I give Miracles For Sale the strict analysis, I would be at my desk well into 2014, I’m sure. This is an extremely difficult and complex film; perhaps the most difficult and complex plot ever smushed into 71 minutes of rapid-fire film, complete with the occasional comedy aside. Add to which, it is based on a novel (Death From A Top Hat, hence DFATH) that is among the most difficult and complex ever written in the mystery field — so much so that they had to leave out bits of it because it would have doubled the running time of the film to explain things completely.  I’m quite familiar with this book, having loved it for years, and it’s a fascinating strict-form puzzle mystery based on the principles of stage magic, against a background of people whose professions include ventriloquist, stage magician, escape artist, medium, and a pair of nightclub performers with a telepathy act.  There’s also a professional debunker of phony mediums and a main character whose job it is to create the objects and routines with which stage magicians make their living.

At this point, the book and film diverge. The ventriloquist disappears from the film, to my sorrow, and to my much greater sorrow, the book’s grandstanding and verbose character of The Great Merlini, owner of a magic supply store and amateur detective, has been replaced by Mike Morgan, portrayed by the debonair but considerably more pedestrian Robert Young.

Browning_1939_MiraclesForSale_1As I said, a complex and difficult plot; I’ll give you the bare bones. A group of assorted professions as noted above are involved in the circumstances of the murder of the first victim, X, who is found dead in his locked apartment, spread-eagled inside a pentagram on the floor filled with black magic symbols and objects. Suspicion immediately falls on another character, Y, who leaves the murder scene because he has to appear on a live radio show.  Y promptly vanishes and later appears to have been lying dead elsewhere, spread-eagled inside a pentagram, the whole time. A number of other characters go through a lot of plot machinations in a remarkably short period of time, speaking crisply, and someone keeps trying to kill Florence Rice’s character, including one character whom we see clearly and whose corpse (to the left in the pentacle) is pretty cold at this point.  That’s her in the wide-shouldered gown above; she’s about to be shot at during a magic act in the finale, just before the real murderer is unmasked.  There’s a seance, a stage act, a car chase, and a bunch of magic tricks that go off at the right time. In the meantime we have seen an actual locked-room mystery brought off before our very eyes — in a solvable way.

But, dear reader, you will not solve this mystery. I believe it is possible to do so, given the information on the screen and in the soundtrack, but I will tell you in real life that you’ll never get it first time through. You have a dim chance, if you’ve read the book but forgotten most of the details; if you come to this cold, you’ll just never do it. Frankly, this is one for sitting back and allowing it to happen and enjoying it, and then, if you’re interested, watch the film again and see if you can figure out where and how you were fooled.  I will say, just a tiny bit enigmatically, that I was not aware of anyone leaving the apartment after the penny had been electrified, although I understand that someone had to have done so. I accept that the murderer can physically have accomplished what he did, and he had just enough time to do so, but honestly, folks, he would have been out of breath upon arrival everywhere and phenomenally lucky to boot.

If you’d actually like to try, I suggest that you stop the recording at the point when Florence Rice is going to be the target of the bullet — at the 1:09 mark — and start again from the beginning until you know what is about to happen and why, and instigated by whom. There is no Ellery Queenian “Challenge to the Reader” in this film or its source material, but if you wish a point at which to try yourself, that would be it.

Points of Interest:

5845664999_350ae6cd42_mI’ve always liked this movie, and in the years before videotape it was very difficult indeed to see; at least one very muddy print was making the rounds of small television markets, and I picked up VHS copies two or three times hoping vainly for a better copy.  Part of my affection for the book version comes from its origin in my life; I’ve been a collector of and dealer in mapbacks for many years, and it used to be that the source material, DFATH, was only available in a low-numbered and valuable paperback edition, complete with the “map of crime scene on back cover” that contributes to these early Dell editions being so charming and collectible. So whenever I managed to find a copy, not only did I have a very pleasant re-reading experience immediately at hand, but I also had an immediate customer for the book.

My affection for the movie, I think, stems from the fact that it’s an extremely difficult strict-form puzzle mystery — perhaps THE most difficult strict-form puzzle mystery on film — translated from book to film with very little loss. There is charm, humour, the events move at the same breakneck clip as in the original, and for those of us who enjoy ratiocination, there’s plenty of room for deduction. I would show my best copy of this to personal friends, inviting them to bemoan with me the general dullness of Hollywood mysteries that almost never rose to this level of complexity and difficulty.

I have to say, I have changed my tune somewhat. There are only a few such films that are strict-form and worth watching that date back to the 1930s, and definitely not very many overall — Clue, a comedy from 1985, is perhaps the latest, and The Last of Sheila from 1973 is perhaps the last serious one not based on an Agatha Christie piece. The ones that managed to get made — this has never been a popular genre — were marked by extreme originality and usually based in some profession or background that would have been interesting in any context. Unfortunately, for the handful that are worth watching, there are ten times as many unwatchable, dull and chaotic failures.

x-miracles-for-sale-jWhy is that?

Oddly enough, I figured this out by watching every single episode of the 80s TV series Murder, She Wrote at least twice, and this is an exercise I don’t recommend to you. MSW tries to be a strict form puzzle mystery, for the most part, and part of the reason that it is dull and considered suitable for the elderly is that a strict form puzzle mystery is very difficult to SHOW.  It is much easier to write. The other reason the series is dull is that in 264 episodes and four made-for-TV movies, Jessica Fletcher is on the scene when a body is discovered.  This is beyond ridiculous, and thus the production is constantly winking at the audience that this is merely a set piece, a kind of game played out for your amusement, and to me this sucks a lot of vitality out of the plots.

I don’t remember the episode name, but I dimly recall one of the clues was that Jessica Fletcher walked into a room and put her hand on a TV set and grimaced a little.  This was meant to indicate that the TV set was still warm, and thus the room had been occupied when someone said it wasn’t, and therefore the murderer was some washed-up 80s TV sidekick. The point is, though, that it was necessary to show Jessica putting her hand on the TV set and reacting, and the viewer had to figure out why she had grimaced and draw all the same conclusions. Something peculiar happens in the very tightly scripted episode of a network programme when this happens; the canny viewer immediately becomes aware that an important clue has just been shown, because every single other word and gesture and movement and camera angle and interaction has a purpose and a function.  When we are shown something that is seemingly extraneous, well, we’re all wise and experienced TV viewers, and we know there is some reason for being shown this, if we can only figure it out.  Since the strict-form mystery must show you the clues, they are much more difficult to conceal or obfuscate than they are with the printed word. Here, you’ve got 71 minutes of vital plot points being rained upon you like confetti; miss one and you can’t solve the mystery.  In the book you have to construct in your head a map of the whereabouts of every character, and follow them all the way through the plot to realize that there is only one person who can have done everything that happened.  In this movie, you have to sort information like the proverbial one-armed paper-hanger, and there’s no time to think about anything except what just exploded.  That’s why MSW is considered dumbed down for a dumb audience — the producers knew their audience could only handle one or two difficult clues every fifteen minutes or so. Here, it’s vital information every fifteen seconds. All of it necessary to a truly complicated plot, and upon fifth or sixth viewing of this gem, you’ll appreciate the shovel-loads of data that the writers threw at you so skilfully. First time through, fugeddaboudit.

While I do think there are a double-handful of strict-form puzzle mystery films that are enjoyable — I’ll make a list for you someday — I think I have come to understand over the years why there are not more of them. You run a double risk of failure.  You have failed if 98% of people who see the film think, at the end of it, that they could NEVER have solved the damn mystery and it will be a cold day in hell before they ever go to another Mike Morgan movie.  Unfortunately you have also failed if 98% of people who see the film think, at the end of it, that of course it was perfectly obvious whodunnit and really, they must think we’re just idiots to make it that easy, I’ll skip the next one and send my 11-year-old to see it.

As I’ve said or suggested above, I’m a reasonably intelligent person with a very wide knowledge of murder mysteries, who is accustomed to the challenge of trying to figure them out and succeeds a great deal of the time — and I failed to figure this one out on the first go-round. I venture to say that this means that approximately 100% of people who see the movie are surprised by the ending, and in this case it cannot be a very pleasant surprise. The actual murderer has disguised himself as a number of other people, but he is only on screen in his own persona for 60 or 90 seconds of the film at most. This is not enough time for anyone to grasp the individual and understand exactly who he is and what he does for a living, especially since the movie proceeds at breakneck speed and all the men are wearing nearly identical clothing at all times.  I have this little vision of a stream of people leaving the theatre after the premiere, saying, “Well, you know, not as much FUN as those Thin Man movies, don’t you think?”  I love this film, I love the level of expectation that it has of my puzzle-solving efforts, but I have to say, all in all, it’s a failure.  It’s just too damn tough.

And that’s why I’m not expecting a lot of enormously popular strict-form puzzle mystery films to be greenlit in the near future. It’s a chancy and difficult exercise that is fraught with peril and, very often, the modern screenplay doesn’t exhibit that level of wild imaginative originality that is so necessary to lift a mystery plot from the level of MSW to Miracles for Sale.  You have to have a mystery that is based on a visual premise. You need interesting detective characters, a strange background, a weird murder idea. And there’s no guarantee that anyone will like it even if you get it right.

There’s one further point of interest, albeit a minor one.  I learned from the TCM introduction to this film that it represents the first time that contact lenses were seen to be used in a film. That is a minor plot point, but it will explain why one or two characters seem to have weird colourless eyes; you’ll understand this in the last minutes of the film.

Notes For the Collector:

1289890045Copies of the film seem readily available.  It was broadcast by Turner Classic Movies in October, 2013 and they aren’t usually shy about repeating their offerings every once in a while. TCM and Amazon both have the same double-feature DVD available for under $20.

Copies of the book, especially the Dell edition pictured above, are certainly worth having. To me, Clayton Rawson is one of the cornerstones of the puzzle mystery and Dell mapbacks are a cornerstone of paperback collecting.  All four of the Merlini books in mapback edition might set you back $100 and they will only increase in value with time; the most expensive copy you can find is probably the biggest bargain. The hardcover first without jacket starts at about $45, but the jacket is extremely scarce in any condition and the cheapest one I saw was $310; the VG+ copy in VG+ jacket will set you back $3,750 (pictured at left). I’ve never held in my hands one for sale with its original jacket, but I note that there is a really good facsimile jacket out there. So a good rule of thumb is that if the jacket is in good condition, it’s either a facsimile or you probably can’t afford it.

Dangerous Crossing (1953)

Dangerous Crossing

dangerous_crossing_xlg Author: Screenplay by Leo Townsend, based on the radio play “Cabin B-13” written by John Dickson Carr. Leo Townsend was a prolific writer of TV episodes in the 1960s and apparently cut his teeth on adaptations like this one. John Dickson Carr, of course, is the Grand Master of the Locked Room Mystery, and his Wikipedia page found here will tell you all about him. 

Other Data:  75 minutes long. August, 1953, according to IMDB.  Directed by Joseph M. Newman, a minor director whose best-known picture might have been 1955’s This Island Earth. This film was also remade in 1992 as Treacherous Crossing starring Lindsay Wagner, Grant Show, and Angie Dickinson.

Cast: Jeanne Crain as attractive newlywed Ruth Bowman. Carl Betz as her not-very-much-seen husband, and Michael Rennie as the ship’s doctor attending their honeymoon cruise.

About this film:

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

There’s not very much to this film, and there will not be very much to this review. I took note of this film because it’s one of the few times that the work of John Dickson Carr was made into a film. The Man With a Cloak (1951) and That Woman Opposite (1957), and the French-language La chambre ardente (1962) form the principal four. There was a television adaptation of Colonel March of Scotland Yard, starring Boris Karloff, and occasionally Carr’s stories were adapted for episodes of series without recurring characters.  But by and large Carr’s work did not suit itself to the screen, large or small.

Radio, however, was quite another matter. Carr’s short stories are often based on a single trick, and sometimes this trick can be ably communicated in a visual way that’s suited to radio. And when Carr came up with a radio script called “Cabin B-13”, he seemingly hit the jackpot. This was reworked and repurposed and remade a number of times, with a few differences each time, but all keeping the central premise. When I was much younger, I wanted to read my way through all of Carr and managed to do so, by and large, except for a few things. But “Cabin B-13” always defeated me because it had never been a short story or a novel, only a radio programme. I should probably have realized that because it had been repurposed into different media, it had to be a simple premise, nothing of the delightful (to me) complexity of, say, The Three Coffins.

In fact, this is a simple story with a simple underlying premise. Jeanne Crain is a newlywed who boards a transatlantic liner with her new husband. They check into their stateroom and he promptly vanishes. She spends most of the rest of the film trying to convince people that, yes, she had a husband, he did come aboard, and she’s not crazy. She has discerned that some kind of plot is operating against her because a stewardess out-and-out lies about what happened when she saw the newlyweds in their cabin. The ship’s doctor, Michael Rennie, doesn’t quite know what’s going on but, in the way that films work, he has apparently fallen in love with her at first sight.

One odd thing about this film is that the newly-minted Mrs. Bowman appears to fall in love with the doctor at first sight also. And that is weird, because she just met and fell in love with Mr. Bowman at first sight and was married after a whirlwind courtship of a mere few days. She’s not even completely sure where precisely she got married. If you look at this logically, there is something mentally wrong with this woman, and it’s not necessarily what everyone is thinking, that she’s invented a husband for herself and is engaged in some bizarre attention-getting behaviour. Carl Betz is pretty much a greasy little thug in a horrible suit, and Michael Rennie is sensitive, intelligent, and has wonderful manners. And he’s occasionally in naval uniform. What’s odd is not that Mrs. Bowman falls in love with the doctor at first sight, but that for all we know she has fallen in love with some random guy every six weeks or so for a long, long time. Carl Betz is not shown to be anyone with whom this pretty, well-dressed woman has anything in common. She certainly cares about her new husband enough to put herself through considerable anguish looking for him and trying to urge others to do the same. But the relationship between her and the doctor is … weird.  It’s like they’ve known each other for years and the only thing left to do is tidy away the missing husband and run away together. And of course by the end of the movie you’re wondering about her sanity for having fallen in love with Mr. Bowman in the first place.

Anyway. The stewardess looks guiltier and guiltier, but it’s not clear why, since our heroine has no idea who she is or why she would be inimical. Larger numbers of people start to think that Mrs. Bowman is crazy, and even the doctor seems to be being convinced. Then she gets a phone call from her husband. He’s aboard, he’s in hiding, and she has to keep her mouth shut about it, because danger and stuff. (This is a part of the film where your suspension of disbelief will be somewhat strained. It’s like the actors themselves don’t believe this particular part, and the screenplay has an air of “it is because we say so, so let’s move forward”. She’s relied crucially upon the assistance of the doctor, and all of a sudden she doesn’t trust him enough to give him a phone call and say, “Oh, BTW, found my husband, thanks so much.” This definitely has had-I-but-known aspects to it.) Anyway, it turns out that, surprise, her husband married her for her money. His plot is to make people think she’s crazy, came aboard alone with a hallucinated husband, and killed herself when her dementia really took over. Then the husband would run away with all her money to join, of all people, the stewardess, whose job has generated this whole scenario.

So this is pretty much Gaslight on a ship. I think this worked for Carr in film, radio and print because the setting was a well-known cliche, and most of the plot could be carried in dialogue. There’s a big flaw in the way that this particular adaptation is presented, though. Since the screenplay makes it perfectly clear that the husband exists — she has conversations with him in public and no one makes a move to put her into care after watching her get kissed by the invisible man, as it were — we know she is not crazy, and the husband exists, and the stewardess is part of a plot against her. It’s apparent from the beginning that there is a plot against her, in fact. And so, since the big revelation in Act III is, yes, there IS a plot against her, all the life has been sucked out of that particular element already. Her husband is the ringleader? Um, well, yeah, since he’s the only person in the entire universe whom we know has anything to gain from her death.

I have to say, this is about the least interesting work from John Dickson Carr I’ve ever encountered, unless you count the massive historical true-crime snorefest that is The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey. It doesn’t have any of Carr’s hallmarks, wonderful series characters or anything, indeed, except a straight line of plot, three main characters, three minor ones, and the backdrop of an ocean liner. (Carr set a couple of his books on board a ship, The Blind Barber and Murder in the Submarine Zone (aka Nine … and Death Makes Ten), and seemed to find the location innately interesting.) It’s noteworthy, though, that Carr never did manage to sell his great series characters in other media, unless you count simple audio-book readings and inexpensive radio-play productions of his printed works. Apparently Hollywood couldn’t handle presenting Dr. Fell — Sydney Greenstreet being the only actor who could have played him contemporaneously — and television was willing to settle for the relatively boring Colonel March. So we have this film, and a couple of adaptations of his non-series works. I suspect his mystery plots are too Byzantine for producers to feel that filmic audiences will grasp them at all, and his historical plots are — honestly, though I enjoy his work, they’re just nonsensical. It’s as though Carr specialized in “way too smart” but occasionally veered into “way too stupid”, and the few non-series contemporary novels are the only things that will translate to film as being “just right”.

The acting is of a slightly higher quality. Jeanne Crain works very hard to sell the plot and does her difficult job well.  Michael Rennie is painfully restrained and Carl Betz changes from Prince Charming to evil conspirator effectively. There are a couple of minor character actors who contribute a lot, particularly a tiny turn by Marjorie Hoshelle as a man-hungry female.  Everything else is relatively undistinguished, although Crain’s character wears an incredible full-length mink coat that looks amazing even in black and white. Occasionally there are clever camera angles and interesting backdrops (the liner’s swimming pool is a nice period piece). But there is nothing here that lifts this film above the level of “programmer”, at a time when Hollywood was beginning to wake up to the imminent threat of television.

Now, if they had made a film of The Judas Window … <sigh>.

Notes For the Collector:

Copies of the film seem readily available.  It was broadcast by Turner Classic Movies in August, 2013 and they aren’t usually shy about repeating their offerings every once in a while.

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)


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: 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.