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

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

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

And_Then_There_Were_None__1945_And Then There Were None (1945)

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

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

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

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

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

Card_Cape2The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935)

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

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

dvd197The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

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

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


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

zbish The Bishop Murder Case (1930)

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #005

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


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

Publication Data:

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

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

About this book:

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

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

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

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

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

tumblr_llemg8HRrr1qceuzao1_500Why is this so awful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood/Mystery Movie Series of 1940s Hollywood, by Ron Backer

Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood & Mystery Movie Series of 1940s Hollywood

Ron Backer, whom the jacket describes as “an attorney who has previously written for law reviews and other legal publications.  An avid fan of both mysteries and movies, he lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania”.

Publication Data:  The 1940s volume is copyright 2010 and the 1930s volume, 2012.  I imagine the delay is because the 1930s volume is somewhat larger and covers more material.

About these books:

I’m at the stage of life where, rather than waste money and effort by buying me a book I read two years ago and already own two copies of, my family and close friends ask me what I want for Christmas and birthdays. I was glad to advise them that I was aware of these two volumes and would they kindly show up under the tree?

I’m glad I asked for them.  This is an area about which I can claim to be well-informed, and to me these volumes were an interesting gloss on my own collection and even extended my knowledge a bit. I think for the less experienced collector they would represent an excellent way of systematically approaching the viewing/acquiring of this sub-genre. And, as the TV pitchman says, “Makes a great Christmas gift!”

bk9901The 1930s volume covers 22 series, including some major series like the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, Charlie Chan, Philo Vance, Nick and Nora Charles, Perry Mason, Mr. Moto, and some decidedly minor efforts like Bill Crane and Barney Callahan. The 1940s volume discusses 19 series, most of which are by now at the B level: series like The Saint, The Falcon, Boston Blackie and Michael Shayne. There is a significant body of work presented in the two volumes. I have to say that Mr. Backer has done an enormous service by not only collecting information about these films but giving us his opinions. To be sure, I disagreed with some of what he had to say. But Backer approaches these films in the same way I do, and so I found these volumes provoked me into deeper thought. Not content to merely passively absorb, he follows the plot and thinks about it afterwards, trying to notice if the plot is taut or holey, if characterization is consistent and believable, even whether the mystery is fair or unfair. Then the reader who has himself seen these films has the luxury of agreeing or disagreeing.

One excellent focus that Backer has brought to the books is that he has gone to some trouble to trace source materials. His observation is that series of the 1930s were usually based on books, whereas series of the 1940s were frequently based on other source material; comic books, radio programmes, even original screenplays. I agree with this and it’s a fascinating little eddy in the broader stream of branded product that was coming into being, the beginnings of characters like Ellery Queen and Simon Templar who existed across multiple media platforms. And of course Sherlock Holmes, the original portable media brand, and we see here one of its most famous extensions discussed extensively here with the dozen Basil Rathbone films using the character.

Backer also has some skill at working out the relationships among films in a series; when he says that such-and-such is the best or worst in its series, he gives reasons and I tended to agree with them. My problems are concerned with the very limited amount of thought he gives to how these series compare as series — there is little or no attempt to compare the merits of one to another, which would have been an interesting exercise.  I think the thing that was the largest stumbling block for me was at the very outset, as I immediately hit the assertion that the Golden Age mystery finds its modern equivalent in the cozy. (I regret that I cannot identify precisely where in the volumes I found this; I was too horrified to make a note.) Sorry, sir; I’m prepared to dispute your opinions about the relative merit or a film, but that assertion is simply indefensible. It’s like suggesting that the tigers of old are the same as the housecats of today; Golden Age mysteries and the modern cozy are two different species entirely. I had to conclude that the author had misunderstood one genre or the other, and that left me a little bit less willing to accept his views on filmic subgenres.

There are also a couple of omissions that I noted — although he excludes non-Hollywood mysteries in a series, I do think Wilfred Hyde-White’s appearance in the lost Philo Vance film The Scarab Murder Case is worth a mention. And there is not the depth of rich detail that I have come to appreciate about the ways in which actors morph and segue within and without such series; there’s possibly a book in itself, tracing the paths of actors like Nat Pendleton, Patricia Morison, or Howard Huber as they appear in many mysteries in different roles. Here he merely observes that so-and-so appeared in two different series, without appreciating how genre-based typecasting meant that Nat Pendleton could appear as different policeman-sidekicks in different series without having to do any characterization work to differentiate himself, because the audience “knew” Pendleton’s image as an earnest, hardworking doofus.

One aspect I really appreciated was the exhaustive research that’s gone into the details of some very obscure films. I have to confess that although I have seen almost all of the films mentioned in these volumes, and lack access to the same handful that Backer was unable to screen, I was delighted to find a reference to a little-known series that I had never heard of, and pointers to the existence of a couple of films in small series of which I was not aware. (I have now completed my Thatcher Colt collection and thank Mr. Backer for informing me of the existence of The Night Club Lady; to me, immediately the best of the series and a darn good mystery to boot.)

Backer restricts his efforts to series containing three or more films, and I can’t say that’s wrong; every author of a reference book has to draw the line somewhere. By and large this policy excludes little of value, but the few mandated omissions of significant films truly seem to me to harm the scholarship. It might have been wise to include such short-run series as Nero Wolfe, whose two films are significant in the early history of mystery films, as are the two Jim Hanvey films. (I add some months after this post was initially mounted that I would like to have seen Mr. Backer take on the 12 mystery short films written by S.S. Van Dine, whose series characters would have benefited from his interest.) I do wish the author had turned his attention to Batman, which franchise seems to me to qualify. It took me a while to come up with the name of a franchise that did well in other media platforms but only generated one movie: Mr. and Mrs. North. I suggest that even this singleton movie might be worthwhile in a book devoted to series. But without thinking hard, I can suggest there are a couple of Western series characters whose films were primarily mysteries with Western trappings and characters, albeit at the general level of mystery of Scooby-Doo and those meddling kids.  Perhaps the crossover mystery movie series of the 1930s and 1940s will be Backer’s next topic. I’d like to see him tackle the light-comedy-married-couple-as-detectives sub-genre in more detail, but perhaps only because I’m interested as of late. He does good scholarship and I’d like to see more of it.

All things considered, if you are interested in mystery film series of this era, these two volumes will form the cornerstone of your understanding. I think they’re currently the definitive work.

Notes For the Collector:

These trade paperbacks were ordered as Christmas gifts for me, as noted above, and cost about $55 each to get from the U.S. to Canada. Abebooks gives a range of 25 roughly equivalent prices for “new” and “as new” copies. Yes, that seems expensive, but over a lifetime of having books come and go through my hands, I have to say that the only books I will now not part with are reference books; they’re always, always worth whatever I paid for them and more.  I can’t imagine that these volumes are scarce at the present moment, but like most such offerings they may disappear and not attain reprint. (There is certainly no prospect of an updated edition since there is almost no chance of new material coming to light.) The publisher is McFarland, a large and well-known company, and I am slightly less sanguine about the continued availability of these volumes because of it. Had the publisher been the author himself, as is more common these days, these might be printed upon demand and available as first editions indefinitely. So if this sort of material is important to your scholarship, I urge you to get these books before you have to pay double their cover price in the aftermarket.

Anthony Boucher

As I’ve commented here, I’m not reading very many actual physical murder mystery books these days.  Indeed, many of the ones that have passed through my hands recently were *not* read for pleasure but skimmed for ideas and/or to analyze where they went wrong.  So I will not be treating you all to a scathing review of the work of, say, Leslie Meier.  For one thing, it wouldn’t really be all that scathing.  Ms. Meier writes simple cozies and I am emphatically not her target audience, so why should I take offense at being treated like a dummy if that’s what her readership — which I take to be considerable — actually wants from her?  I was merely curious about how she manages to sell what she manages to sell, and how well she writes, and so on.  So I picked up three of them at a garage sale and skimmed them to see the voice she was using, and the underlying structure, and the opening lines, and how she handled the introduction of characters, etc. Possibly it will be considered scathing to say that she is a “competent” writer. But I think it’s just a case of what an old queen of my acquaintance used to call NOSD — “not our sort, dear”. If you like her work, feel free to keep liking it.  I will continue to avoid it, but not for any vituperative reason, merely that it’s not to my taste.

But a friend recently returned to me a copy of The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942) by Anthony Boucher, and THAT was worth re-reading for pleasure. Yes, I’d given him the edition whose cover you see here — I love Dell mapbacks. (Look them up in Wikipedia if you’re not aware of them.) Boucher’s mysteries are relatively scarce in paperback and one or two of them are darn near impossible to find, notably The Case of the Seven of Calvary. But they are decidedly worth tracking down if you are a fan of the classic puzzle mystery.

Mr. Boucher was many, many things in the writing field and good at all of them.  He was a superb reviewer of mysteries, he wrote them himself, he was also a science-fiction writer of note, and a great anthologist.  He was also responsible for an enormous body of work writing radio scripts and you can probably find the Sherlock Holmes radio programmes with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as MP3s, freely available, if you go searching for them.

His mysteries are fascinating examples of the puzzle mystery and one or two of them are even locked room mysteries, or “impossible crime” mysteries.  (Again, if you’re not up on this sub-genre, I recommend Wikipedia.) This particular novel takes place on a tiny island and, in the classic pattern, all entry to and exit from the island is controlled in such a way that the suspects are limited to only the people on the island at the time — no extraneous characters can possibly be responsible or even accomplices.  Someone was killing cats and people at a wedding reception 25 years ago and seems to be repeating the pattern in the present day (which is in the 1940s, as I recall without having the book at hand).

I admit that this sort of book held much, much more delight for me in the past than it does these days. As a younger reader, I found myself able to overlook certain mawkish elements like cardboard-y characters and silly plot twists — at one point in this particular novel, a man escapes certain death by stabbing because his heart is on the wrong side of his body, which is a little too much like a cheap radio script for my tastes — in favour of the sheer inventiveness and creativity that Boucher brought to his work, and large quantities of cutting-edge daring. To the modern reader, some of the inventiveness and creativity may go unnoticed and the daring may be overlooked. For instance, in TCOSS,  there is a character (Alyx) who is, essentially, what used to be called a “nymphomaniac” (in present-day terms, a sex addict).  It’s she who is depicted on the cover, threatening to cry rape and tearing her stocking to add verisimilitude. Well, that you can see on daytime TV these days.  But in the 1940s, OMG, that was shocking. Dangerously close to unpublishable. People just did not talk about sex in mysteries of the 1940s in such an open way. They also didn’t speak of these things in terms of psychological syndromes. In this novel, Boucher actually lays the groundwork for the realization of the reader that not only is the nymphomanaical Alyx a sex addict, but she is that way for reasons connected with traumatic events in her past.  Again, that seems simple to the modern reader, but that was not the type of conclusion that people were encouraged to draw in the 1940s.  Think of Carmen Sternwood, for instance. It was only at the level of Raymond Chandler’s writing that this sort of sexual pathology was acceptable.  In the pulps, I think the best explanation for the lack of that kind of verisimilitude is that (a) there was a kind of self-censorship to stay within the obscenity laws of the time, and (b) I suspect there was a common understanding among pulp writers that the audience just wouldn’t get it.

But I digress.  One of the reasons that I enjoy Boucher’s work so much is that he has, simply put, a great sense of humour.  It’s not especially evident in this specific novel, but it permeates his work like an undercurrent.  His detective, Fergus O’Breen, is not especially realistic, but constantly lulls the reader into a sense of mild amusement with his brash comments and general approach.

The main reason, though, is the thought that went into the plotting. Obviously it would be terrible to reveal whodunit, for instance, and I have no intention of doing that here. But Boucher’s level of intricate plotting is equaled by very, very few writers — people like Christianna Brand, Anthony Berkeley, Ellery Queen, Hake Talbot.  The amount of thought that goes into constructing such a plot is monumental.  I can’t say you will never figure this one out, because I actually did (but based on a principle that is unfair to this great writer, since it’s more based on my knowledge of the way mysteries work than anything else).

Incidentally, the “marooned on the island” theme is of course common to the country-house mystery genre of this period; if I were teaching this novel, I’d suggest that students would “compare and contrast” this to, say, Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery and/or The Spanish Cape Mystery, or Hake Talbot’s The Hangman’s Handyman.  Especially now that I’m not one of the few people in the world who’s read that last one, since Ramble House has re-published it. Or, of course, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. You can find examples of the closed circle throughout this sub-genre, but this one of Boucher’s is especially well-done.  Sometimes OTT, but a good, solid, enjoyable read that will probably surprise you at the end.