PVR Overload!

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Toward a definition of the “police procedural”

691455-police-investigationMy most recent post, “The End of the Golden Age?“, attracted more comment and attention than anything I’ve ever displayed here (offhand, I’d say the comments section is four times the size of the article).  Thank you to the pundits who took the trouble to share their facts and opinions.

In the course of that discussion, one smaller point arose; it seems as though there was a great deal of difference of opinion as to what constitutes a “police procedural” novel, and when and by whom the first ones were written. Although I don’t think I’m the type to generate controversy merely for its own sake, it does seem like this is something that can be hashed out to the profit of scholarship; I intend to propose a definition and some boundaries based on my experience and personal preferences, and then stand back and (I hope) watch my better-informed peers tell me exactly where I’ve gone wrong.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t consider analyzing works that I don’t have immediately to hand, or know so well that I can talk about their details without a reference copy to check. However, I generally only discuss one work at a time; this piece, of necessity, has to deal with dozens of works and although my collection is large, it’s not perfect. There are works mentioned here that I have only heard discussed, but I’m sufficiently aware of their details that I know they have to be part of this analysis. So this is not meant to be authoritative; this is meant to be what I’d call at the office a “concept draft”. I am already aware that parts of my initial contribution are inadequate, and it’s meant to be filled out in a discussion by others.

Definition

I’ve always found that a good place to start to define a term is by looking at how other people define it and then teasing out the underlying logic. To that end, here’s Wikipedia’s definition of “police procedural”:

“The police procedural is a subgenre of detective fiction which attempts to convincingly depict the activities of a police force as they investigate crimes. While traditional detective novels usually concentrate on a single crime, police procedurals frequently depict investigations into several unrelated crimes in a single story. While traditional mysteries usually adhere to the convention of having the criminal’s identity concealed until the climax (the so-called whodunit), in police procedurals, the perpetrator’s identity is often known to the audience from the outset (the inverted detective story). Police procedurals depict a number of police-related topics such as forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation.”

Anthony Boucher

Anthony Boucher

Well, there’s enough to be sorted through there to occupy me for quite a long post, I think. I will note that Wikipedia, in the same article, suggests that “In 1956, in his regular New York Times Book Review column, mystery critic Anthony Boucher, noting the growing popularity of crime fiction in which the main emphasis was the realistic depiction of police work, suggested that such stories constituted a distinct sub-genre of the mystery, and, crediting the success of Dragnet for the rise of this new form, coined the phrase “police procedural” to describe it.” The paragraph finishes with the “citation needed” tag indicating that the statement is unsubstantiated by a citation; I have found in the past that these tags are signposts to statements that may or may not be accurate when researched thoroughly.  I have no access to Boucher’s New York Times work of 1956 to verify this one way or the other, but it does sound like the kind of neologism he was capable of coining; I’ll provisionally accept it until I see evidence to the contrary. The important point here is that the phrase itself was invented in 1956; anything before that point cannot be retroactively labeled, but, if it fits the definition, must be called a “proto-police procedural”.

Wikipedia’s definition focuses on differentiating the procedural from the “traditional detective novel” and “traditional mystery”; what it’s saying is that the plots of procedurals contain multiple strands (unlike the straight-line plot of many detective novels) and that they are “often” told in the style of the inverted detective story. Let’s see if we can sort out a few strands of logic from this, and I’ll add a few of my own.

  1. Police procedurals depict the activities of a police force as it investigates crimes. Frequently this means that the story is told from the point of view of multiple police officers.
  2. Police procedurals depict a number of techniques that police officers use to do their work (forensics, autopsies, the gathering of evidence, the use of search warrants and interrogation). These techniques are represented accurately and based on research into real-life techniques.
  3. In police procedurals, the (putative) identity of the criminal is sometimes indicated to the reader long before the end of the story — and sometimes not.
  4. Police procedurals are meant to be realistic, or to seem realistic; the characters in the story are human, with both faults and talents, and the events of the story depict failure as well as success.
  5. In police procedurals, police officers are frequently depicted as having personal lives and relationships that may or may not become intertwined with their investigations.
  6. In police procedurals, the work of police officers is depicted such that, as a group, they will be involved with multiple crimes at the same time in various stages of the process.

With these six principles in mind, let’s examine a number of possibilities that have been suggested as being possible members of the category, holding them up to these boundaries and seeing if they pass or fail. Police procedural stories can be told in different media forms (novels, short stories, films) and thus I haven’t eliminated any story because of the medium in which it was presented.

Examples for Consideration

(a) Various “Humdrum” practitioners and early stories generally thought of as detective novels, all published before 1947

As noted above, even if any of these stories meets the six criteria above, they could not be, strictly speaking, “police procedurals” because the term was not yet invented. They might qualify as “proto-procedurals”.

Specific suggestions (from the comments on my recent Golden Age post, Wikipedia, and other Internet-based sources) include:

  • The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts (1920) and others of his novels including The Loss of the ‘Jane Vosper’ (1936) and Six Against The Yard (1936)

The Cask

The Cask (and others of the adventures of Inspector French) seems to me to be very close to a proto-procedural, but I think ultimately it fails. I’m going to rely on the authority of Curtis Evans, author of Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery and an expert on Crofts’s work, who states in the comments to my Golden Age post below that “Crofts didn’t know beans about police procedure, to be honest”. My sense is that, although many of the criteria of the procedural are met more closely than many other authors’, his books therefore fail criterion #2. In addition, in my opinion, the Inspector French novels are tightly focused on this gentleman and don’t contain enough information (or especially viewpoint observations) about his subordinates’ investigations to meet criterion #1.

I’ve read almost all of Crofts and have generally considered him to have written “detective stories” — which I define as stories about the activities and thoughts of a detective who is detecting a crime — rather than proto-procedurals.  I’ve never read Six Against The Yard; I gather that it is a group effort of the Detection Club wherein a fiction writer creates the story of a crime and then a commentator talks about how the crime’s investigation would be approached by real-life police officers. Crofts’s contribution, I understand, is one of the six fictional stories.

I’ll pause here to suggest that many, many works of the Golden Age mystery can be differentiated by parsing criterion #1. Many such works chronicle the investigations of a detective who is employed by a police force, but the story is closely focused upon that single police officer and thus, to me, are detective stories rather than proto-procedurals.  Consider, for instance, the Inspector Alleyn stories of Ngaio Marsh; these are stories about Alleyn himself. Inspector Fox never speaks in his own voice and all other police officers in the books are nonentities. This to me is a crucial differentiation.

Crofts’s Inspector French stories also appear to fail criterion #6 in that only one crime is investigated at a time, but I don’t regard this as crucial. In stories of the period, it seems to me that Scotland Yard’s procedure is represented as assigning an officer to a single case and allowing him to pursue it until it is resolved, without asking him to attend to other duties. If this story were set in the United States, and the activities of the police were depicted as they are here, I think it would be more clear that it failed criterion #6.

  • The Duke of York’s Steps as by “Henry Wade” (Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher) (1929) and others including Lonely Magdalen (1940)

duke of yorks stepsHere, I’m going to have to let my readers speak. I honestly believe I have read The Duke of York’s Steps, decades ago, but its details are completely lost to me. I had its major elements recalled to me by this review of it, in an interesting blog called At the Scene of the Crime, but since I don’t own a copy of the book and am unable to immediately refresh my memory, this is all I can offer. Similarly I’m relatively unfamiliar with the rest of this author’s stories.

  • McKee of Centre Street by Helen Reilly (1934) and others of her Inspector McKee novels

mckeeAlthough I have read my way through Reilly’s oeuvre, it was many years ago, I’ve forgotten quite a few of the details, and I don’t have copies of most of her books at hand to refresh my memory. (There’s a daunting pile of more than a hundred boxes in my spare room where I have a bunch of her paperbacks, I’m sure, but I’m probably not going to reach them for a decade or so unless by happy accident.) I have to say that a book whose detective is named in the book’s title seems to me to be quite focused upon that individual and not upon the stories of his staff. I do recall, though, that McKee’s subordinates have names, faces, and personalities, which is unusual for works of the period. I’m unable to say whether or not this particular novel meets criterion #1, but that’s where I would be focusing my assessment. Similarly, my memory tells me that the details of investigative technique are glossed over and not presented except as results; “The fingerprints came back” sort of thing.

In a general sense, I never thought of Helen Reilly as being interested in police procedure; to me, she’s part of a group of authors, mostly women, who write what I think of as “brownstone mysteries”. These are set among the upper classes and we are meant to learn as much about their clothes, furniture, personalities, daily lives, and sexual peccadillos as we are about the activities of police officers.

  • The “Fire Marshal Pedley” stories as by “Stewart Sterling” (Prentice Mitchell), including Five Alarm Funeral (1942).

MN-FiveI’ve read a number of these novels and, although I am sympathetic to the idea that they are closely related to the police procedural in form, I have to say that ipso facto a police procedural must be about police officers.  These stories therefore fail criterion #1.

Although it was not mentioned in the context, I’ve found a reference to “a series of nine stories [as by Sterling] in the legendary magazine, Black Mask, which were labeled “Special Squad” stories. The 1939-1942 series highlighted different “special” squads from homicide to the bomb squad. I have yet to read any of the series but the descriptions make them sound like examples of early police procedurals.” I also have not read any of these stories.

  •  Pietr-le-Letton (The Strange Case of Peter the Lett) by Georges Simenon (1931), the first Inspector Maigret story

3a_Maguire_inspectormaigretI’ve never been sure why this long, long series of stories is not automatically assigned into the police procedural category; possibly their only reason for non-inclusion is that they are focused quite strongly on Inspector Maigret. But I suspect another reason is, simply, that they are not American, and the sub-genre of the police procedural is felt to be an American invention — mostly by American critics and commentators, I may add. This is not a blind spot restricted to the police procedural; another such baffling American appropriation is the noir genre, even though the name itself is borrowed from French.

I haven’t enjoyed much about these novels, to the great dismay of my friends who are aficionados; I don’t know much about them and, after reading a handful, haven’t continued to track them down. (I lived in Paris for a short time; they seem realistic, but to me a bit dull. And they were not improved for me by reading them in French; the level of language, however, is suitable for the intermediate linguist and you will learn some interesting slang if you keep at it.) Nevertheless my recollection is that they strongly represent the individual characters and viewpoints of Maigret’s subordinates. Maigret himself has a personal life that threads strongly through the books; Madame Maigret has her own case, at one point. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of procedure presented. However, psychology and the art of the investigative interview are indeed part of police procedure. There’s a case to be made that these are proto-procedurals, I think, but I’ll defer to people who know more about them than I.

  • Edgar Wallace

Frankly, I’ve never been able to stomach more than a bit of Wallace; I know he’s important to the crime fiction genre, it’s just that each individual book loses my attention about chapter 3 and, try though I might, I cannot resuscitate it. They all seem to be indifferently written and although the individual activities of each plot appear to be potentially exciting, they are telegraphed so obviously that I inevitably find myself skipping to the final chapters and thinking, “Yes, just as I thought.” At any rate, I’ll have to leave the analysis of Wallace’s inclusion in this genre to those more knowledgeable, and strong-willed, than myself. I very much doubt, though, that Wallace researched anything at all beyond the level of reading newspapers and other people’s detective stories, and I’d be assessing these primarily based on criterion #2.

I’m not particularly aware of which works of Wallace might be considered as proto-procedurals; suggestions are welcome.

  •  Inspector West Takes Charge, by John Creasey (1940), the first Roger West novel

4108096Similarly, I’ve never been able to take much of John Creasey; to quote Truman Capote, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” I have to say that authors like Freeman Wills Crofts and Henry Wade are far more able to hold my attention than Creasey and Wallace, no matter how much spurious excitement they try to inject into their books; Creasey and Wallace, to me, far more accurately deserve the appellation “humdrum”. If any of my readers have managed to finish this or any other Creasey volume, feel free to comment. (And before you take keyboard to hand to berate me, yes, I gave a bunch of his books a good try, a couple from each of his series, and they leave me cold.)

(b) Specific authors and/or stories that have been identified as being police procedurals, in the period 1947-1960

The first five entries in this list — Dragnet, Lawrence Treat, Hilary Waugh, Ed McBain and Dell Shannon — seem to me to be absolutely essential to an understanding of the modern police procedural, regardless of where you decide for yourself the sub-genre started.

  • Dragnet (radio series, 1949-1957)

DragnetThrough the excellent work of the Old Time Radio Researchers Group and through the medium of archive.org, you can experience every available episode of this radio program by accessing this link. The researchers of the OTRRG are meticulous in providing the best available recordings and the accompanying essay is worth your attention, perhaps even more than the Wikipedia article.

I believe the radio version of Dragnet is a significant contribution — if not the first example — of what we’re trying to define here as the police procedural. To the best of my knowledge, it meets every one of the criteria I’ve outlined; although nos. 5 and 6 may be less thoroughly met, the de-emphasis of the personal lives of the detectives might be an attempt to differentiate the program from its more high-strung competitors, and the listener may feel that experiencing these brief stories on a weekly basis may be a way of indicating that the team of detectives works on all kinds of crimes but merely tells one story at a time.

Note that, above, Anthony Boucher is quoted as saying that his invention of the term “police procedural” is partly based on the success of Dragnet. I’m ready to accept that Dragnet is the seminal work of the police procedural and its popularity influenced Waugh, McBain and Shannon to create works in this vein to meet the public’s desire for more stories of this nature.

  • V as in Victim by Lawrence Treat (1945) et seq.

1149863330I don’t have a copy of this at hand and cannot comment, since my memory of it and his other books with similar titles is some 20 years in the past. I will say that I haven’t gone back to re-read these books because my recollection tells me that I didn’t enjoy them very much the first time around. It must be said, though, that I didn’t realize at the time that they were important to the sub-genre of the police procedural and, the next time a volume comes to hand in his “[Letter of the alphabet] as in [Alliterative noun]” series, I’ll give it a good shot.

  • Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh, (1952)

MissingCoEdWaugh1952I’ve re-read this novel within the last couple of years when a copy crossed my path but have no copy immediately at hand. I admit that I had this book stored in my head as the answer to the trivia question, “What book started the police procedural?” but, like so many of these ideas, I stored up the datum years ago and never bothered to examine it in the way I’m here getting rolling. I believe I grasped the idea by reading Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder, which refers to it favourably.

This book chronicles the investigation of the disappearance of a young woman student from her small college campus. I think the reason why this novel was considered so important at its time was that it attempted to approach the crime novel differently; it is a real-time chronicle of an investigation where you are aware of everything that the police are thinking at the time that they are thinking it. All evidence is available to you, as are all inferences drawn from it, and the police go down false trails, are occasionally stymied, and misinterpret evidence that they later re-examine with a different idea in mind. The identity of the criminal is obvious at about the three-quarters point and this person is a minor character in the novel; the police do not interview or approach the criminal until they have accumulated enough evidence to make an arrest.

I think part of the reason I enjoyed this book so much is that it offers the reader the same kind of experience as the classic detective story; we are given excerpts from a diary kept by the victim early in the book, and after accumulating evidence that points in various directions, a re-examination of the diary proves significant. The reader is misled just as thoroughly as are the police and there is a nice “aha!” moment available when you realize the perspective from which you have to read the diary’s language. I’m being coy here to protect your enjoyment if you haven’t read this book; you should read it, and I think you will enjoy it. Another reason I thought this book was different than its contemporary detective novels is that the activities of the police are presented in painstaking and very nearly boring detail, something like the efforts of the Humdrum school exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts; more is made, though, of false trails and false leads, and the police are portrayed as being somewhat less competent and intelligent than in the works of Crofts.

Police officers have told me that if the public actually knew how boring police work truly is, there wouldn’t be a cop show left on television. Waugh manages to make boring details interesting. Regardless of whether it’s the first police procedural or not, it is an important novel in this genre and deserves your attention.

  • Cop Hater, by “Ed McBain” (Evan Hunter), (1956), the first novel in the 87th Precinct series

cop-hater-by-ed-mcbainIt may well be that the fifty-four 87th Precinct volumes of Ed McBain are the first thing that readers (and viewers) think of when they think of police procedurals.  The franchise has survived the death of its creator; I am informed that there may well be another television reboot of this series in the near future (as of 2014) and they have generated more material as a media platform than even the Dragnet series, I believe. Certainly most critics would agree that they are the highest-quality materials available in this genre. They are sensitive, intelligent, beautifully written, realistic, unexpected, quirky, technically accurate, and ground-breaking in the extreme.

This specific volume introduces the principal characters of Detective Steve Carella and his “deaf-mute” wife Teddy (whom he marries at the end of this first volume).  Three detectives at the 87th Precinct of fictional city “Isola” are murdered in a very short period of time, and Carella investigates; the personal lives of the detectives are just as important as the details of investigation, forensics, etc. The central premise of the novel is a clever one that, like so much else in detective fiction, was first invented by Agatha Christie but is used here in an inventive way. The book was filmed in 1958. The reading public supported this franchise through 54 volumes until the author’s death in 2005 and many readers still cherish the central characters as — well, as close to friends as a fictional character can be.

  • Case Pending, as by “Dell Shannon” (Elizabeth Linington), (1960), the first novel in the Lt. Luis Mendoza/LAPD series

336416Although it’s clear that critics, commentators, and the everyday reader would unquestioningly assign the title of “police procedural” to this series, my instinct is to disagree. However, I cannot differ sufficiently to be determined to exclude them from the definition, although they certainly fail my criterion #2. Linington did no more research than would be involved in uncritically reading the work of other novelists or listening to retired police officers shoot the shit in a bar. Nevertheless it is clear that they were conceived by the author and accepted by her readers as police procedurals, and in that sense I will agree with their inclusion in the definition. They’re police procedurals, it’s just that they’re very, very poor ones. They’re similar to the 87th Precinct series as long as you don’t require common sense, writing skill, technical accuracy, correct syntax, or originality, and you are prepared to put up with an unbelievable amount of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, jingoism, religious bigotry, and generalized disdain for almost everyone who isn’t a white, Christian, American, heterosexual upper-class male Republican with far-right political views. I’ve given an early book in this series a thorough analysis, found here, and it goes into greater detail about precisely why and how these books are offensive.

  • Fabian of the Yard (1954-1955), possibly the first British TV police drama.
  • Gideon’s Day, as by “J.J. Marric” (John Creasey), (1955), the first George Gideon novel
  • The “Chief Inspector Harry Martineau of Scotland Yard” series by Maurice Procter, beginning with Hell is a City (1954) and ending in 1968

I’ve never viewed any episodes of “Fabian of the Yard” or read the stories of Maurice Procter, to my recollection; I’m told they would probably qualify in this category. I’ve read a couple of the George Gideon novels and viewed a couple of episodes of the ’60s television productions and the 1958 film within the franchise; as I said above about the rest of Creasy’s work, I didn’t find these stories all that worthwhile. However, it’s possible that they are important works in the history of the British police procedural.

(c) Post-1960, further novels in existing police procedural series and/or new works

969290-gfWhatever the merits or criteria for inclusion within the definition of “police procedural”, all of these works post-date Boucher’s definition of the genre and are generally considered to fall within its boundaries.  I include them here for the information of anyone who is coming late to this genre and wishes to experience works that are generally considered to be good examples of this form. I can’t say that I would recommend that anyone deliberately read their way through the work of Elizabeth Linington, but chacun à son goût. (I read most or all of them at a very young age when book club editions of her work were omnipresent and I was living in an environment not oversupplied with English-language libraries.) I highly recommend the 87th Precinct novels, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and whatever works of Baantjer you can find in English. Some of the television series listed below may not qualify because the police officers only investigate one case at a time; you may or may not find this significant. I have tried to list television series which are generally considered to be of superior quality and you can make your own decisions.

  • Dragnet (television series, 1951-1959; 1967-1970; 1989-1990; 2003)
  • The “Sgt. Ivor Maddox” series by Elizabeth Linington, beginning with Greenmask (1964).
  • The “Vic Varallo” series by “Lesley Egan” (Elizabeth Linington), beginning with The Borrowed Alibi (1962).
  • A long list of 87th Precinct novels as by “Ed McBain”, 1956-2005, as well as made-f0r-TV movies, a television series, comic books, etc., connected with this franchise (see Wikipedia for a complete article).
  • The New Centurions by Joseph Wambaugh (1970) and other novels.
  • Hill Street Blues, an American television series that ran from 1981-1987.
  • NYPD Blue, an American television series that ran from 1993-2005.
  • Police Story, an American television series that ran from 1973-1978.
  • The Wire, an American television series that ran from 2002-2008.
  • Prime Suspect, a British television series that ran from 1991-2006.
  • A number of Australian series including Blue Heelers (1994-2006) and Water Rats (1996-2001).
  • The Dutch-language novels of A. C. Baantjer (and a well-received television series) about a police team led by officer De Cock (in English, “cook”), 1963-2008.
  • The “Martin Beck” novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, from Roseanna (1965) to The Terrorists (1975).

If I were to dig more deeply into this topic than I already have, I would be investigating modern television and film productions more thoroughly. There are a number of different television series that may or may not qualify; many of them would fail for me on criterion #6, in that programmes like Castle (2009-at least 2014) focus on a single case at a time. The three series beginning with CSI seem to me too focused upon the forensic-science aspect of police work, but that might be coloured by the fact that I’m unable to watch David Caruso for more than 30 seconds without reaching for my remote control. Others that come to mind include the huge Law and Order franchise with its various spin-offs and the Indian television series C.I.D. (1998 to at least 2014). And, indeed, almost any of the huge number of television series based around the activities of police officers may or may not qualify, and would require closer attention.  Wikipedia lists a huge page of “police television dramas“, and I’m not familiar with many of them.

 Preliminary conclusions

It seems likely to me at this point in my analysis that the premiere episode of the radio program Dragnet, on June 3, 1949, is likely to be the first thing that fits the complete six-point definition of “police procedural” found above — even though, as I said, the term wasn’t invented until 1956. There are many stories before that point in time that very nearly qualify.  As is common in these situations, it may not actually be very useful to pinpoint this or that work as being the crucial work; possibly the most important thing that happened in this context was Anthony Boucher’s coining of the phrase itself, which solidified the concept as a sub-genre of detective fiction. The rest may merely be material for a timeline.

I’m not sure whether I will get any comments on this at all; my readers can be a quirky bunch and only comment when it suits them. But this is the first time I’ve presented material with which I’m not absolutely familiar and asked for comment from those better-informed than I am, so feel free to have your say, ladies and gentlemen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

The Greek Coffin Mystery, by Ellery Queen (1932)

n60581Author:

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

2633Publication Data:

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

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

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

About this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

04b_GreekWhy is this book worth your time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes for the Collector:

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

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

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

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

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

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

Vintage Golden Card 001

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.

Whodunnit? (Season 1, 2013)

Whodunnit? (Season 1, 2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About this program:

cast-whodunnit-550-abc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes For the Collector:

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

Top Chef Canada — crap for dessert

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

Boy, was *I* wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Chef Canada — a satisfying dish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless the judges, they sent her home.

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

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

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

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