Top 10 Women Detectives in Books

books2-pano_22618In the context of a recent exchange on Facebook with some fellow GAD (Golden Age of Detection) aficionados, the idea of a list of “Top 10 Women Detectives in Books” was conceived, and I incautiously came up with such a list in order to contribute the discussion.  It occurred to me that this would cause people to think of their own lists, which perhaps differ with mine; it seemed more useful to provide an annotated list, giving some reasons. So I thought I’d post here about my suggestions.

Although I came up with this list in a remarkably brief period of time, it seems to hold up; I tried to pick my favourite detectives who stand for a certain style and/or period. I’ll say in general that my list seems to be skewed towards women detectives that I think are “important” in the detective fiction genre, rather than women who are good detectives. Bertha Cool is a fascinating character but not a great detective. I’ll say here, as I said in the context of the Facebook exchange, that I am not very knowledgeable about Victorian-era women detectives and my limited experience may have led me to a faulty conclusion; I’m prepared to accept that Loveday Brooke is not the symbolic figure I imagine her to be from my limited knowledge.

I also wanted to say that I regarded it as important that the characters I suggest are ones who have a reasonably significant presence. Rex Stout‘s creation of private investigator Theodolinda (Dol) Bonner I regard as significant to the genre, but one novel and a couple of guest shots in Nero Wolfe novels are not sufficient to really have an effect. There are others; I chose with an eye to recommending women detectives whose work you can reasonably find in reasonable quantities.

And finally, this list is truly in no order other than when they came to mind. I actually did an initial list of 15 and regretfully omitted some names. In case it’s not clear, these are detectives in books and not television; Jessica Fletcher is in enough books to qualify, but she didn’t make the cut.

1. Sharon McCone

8b2f8ab279fea224f07bd1f77c88978fFor those of you wondering why I haven’t included Sue Grafton‘s Kinsey Millhone on this list, that’s because Marcia Muller got there first. I regard the first Sharon McCone novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, (1977), as the first contemporary woman private eye novel — the one that started Sue Grafton and Karen Kijewski and a host of other novelists down the path of the spunky, flawed, and loveable modern single woman private eye. It’s sobering to think, indeed, just how many books and writing careers are dependent upon Marcia Muller’s invention of Sharon McCone. Sometimes the spunky is foremost (V.I. Warshawski, by Sara Paretsky), sometimes the flawed is more prominent (Cordelia Gray, by P.D. James), and sometimes the loveable (any number of modern cozy series) takes over.

It’s interesting to go back to the beginnings of the woman private eye novel of the 80s and 90s and remember that when these books were written, the things that Marcia Muller was writing about were not yet cliches. She was inventing the essential boundaries of the genre, perhaps without realizing it. Her work was obviously successful in that it both sold well and spawned a host — a “monstrous regiment”, as it were — of imitators and people who extended the genre. But Sharon McCone was first.

2. Jane Marple

250px-MarpleI’ll be brief about Agatha Christie‘s Miss Jane Marple (1920-1972); she is one of the finest literary detective creations of all time, male or female. Although I don’t suggest that Christie was influenced by Dorothy L. Sayers, Sayers wrote about the character of Miss Climpson and other elderly women in Unnatural Death: “Thousands of old maids simply bursting with useful energy, forced by our stupid social system into hydros and hotels and … posts as companions, where their magnificent gossip-powers and units of inquisitiveness are allowed to dissipate themselves or even become harmful to the community … She asks questions which a young man could not put without a blush.”

Miss Marple solves mysteries by sorting through her great experience of human nature to find parallels. She is a keen observer of events going on around her, and she has learned that people are quite similar; they do the same things for the same reasons in the same situations. And as an elderly woman, she seems to be able to ask questions that the police cannot, or that they cannot even conceive of asking. She receives the confidences of other women, and taps into a network of female observers the existence of which most males are not aware; she gains the confidence of servants about the inner workings of households. Lower-level members of Scotland Yard routinely discount her efforts but fortunately she has demonstrated her abilities to very highly placed officers, which is why she gets to sit in on crucial interviews. In a way, Miss Marple could be thought of as the head of a bizarrely parallel Scotland Yard, one run and staffed by women.

3. Maud Silver

b9285fde1ac615cf34c4f1df824fcda8Miss Maud Silver is the creation of Patricia Wentworth, and she appeared in 32 novels between 1928 and 1961. There are many superficial similarities between Miss Marple and Miss Silver. Both are elderly British gentlewomen of the upper-middle or lower-upper classes. But where Miss Marple is anchored in the realities of everyday village life, Miss Silver is operating more at the comic-book level. To begin with, she is a retired governess who went into business for herself as a private investigator — rather like Miss Marple for hire, and that’s a very unrealistic concept at the outset. But the unrealities concatenate. Miss Silver can go anywhere, talk to anyone, and controls every situation in which she finds herself with her steely gaze and frequent reproving cough; she insists upon Victorian-level manners from everyone with whom she interacts. No one ever asks her to leave, no one ever manages to dissemble or prevaricate. In short, she’s a kind of super-hero who inevitably homes in upon the truth and solves the case where Scotland Yard is baffled.

Why I think she’s important to the mystery genre, and not just an ersatz Jane Marple, is that Wentworth had a wonderful skill at creating a certain style of novel that stood as a model for a huge mass of cozy mysteries and even non-mysteries; a series of novels where the repetitive elements overwhelm the individual ones. Every Miss Silver novel contains the same elements repeated again and again, novel after novel. We have a description of Miss Silver’s sitting room, right down to the individual pictures on the walls. Miss Silver’s clothes. Miss Silver’s cough, and her family members, and her faithful servant Hannah. A beautiful young woman with long caramel-coloured eyelashes, who is torn between her love for a handsome young man and something else that underlies a murder plot. There is always a little bit of romance, there is always a foolish character to whom the reader feels superior. There are upper-class people and the servant classes, and Miss Silver travels easily between each. (She usually gets vital information from servants that no one else can obtain.) I think Wentworth led the way in a certain way that many people mistake for what’s called a “formula”. A formula, to me, is where the same plot recurs again and again. Instead this is a way of accreting detail that makes the reader feel comfortable and knowledgeable about what she is reading. “Ah, yes,” we smile to ourselves, “there’s Randal March, I know him, he’s nice. There, she’s quoting Longfellow again. Gosh, I hope Miss Silver’s cough isn’t serious.” I think this accretion, like a nautilus building its shell, is what led the way for other lesser practitioners — many, many lesser practitioners — to write long series of novels that have little content but always the same background details that make the reader think creativity has been exercised. Charlaine Harris is perhaps the most prominent practitioner of that style these days, but there are hundreds of others.

4. Mrs. Bradley

GladysMitchellI have to confess, in the past I haven’t really enjoyed many of the novels by Gladys Mitchell about Dr. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley — 65 of them, written between 1929 and 1984. I’ve found them very uneven, varying wildly between farce and Grand Guignol, and I don’t seem to be one of the people who is charmed by her humour or her cackling manner. But I do know that she is a significant woman detective in the history of the genre. For one thing, she’s a psychiatrist. This is, in 1929, at a time when there weren’t many women doctors of any description, and not many psychiatrists either. The creation of a highly-educated psychiatrist was, in and of itself, a signal that women were to take a significant place in detective fiction and almost a prefiguring of the women’s liberation movement of the 60s and 70s.

Mrs. Bradley is powerful in ways that not many women detectives are. She is constantly described as significantly ugly, with yellowish skin and unpleasant features and a cackling laugh. This is quite a change from a mass of women in detective fiction who rely upon their looks to get their jobs done, or who merely support the male detective; she doesn’t care what men think of her, and that’s a significant development. She is also what we might call morally unsound; I’m only aware of one other famous detective, Philo Vance, who has no compunctions about bringing about the death of murderers to save the hangman, as it were. She doesn’t wait for men to tell her what the right thing to do is, she merely does it herself. She relies on women to help her solve mysteries; a woman with a woman sidekick, Laura (although her chauffeur George is frequently useful as well) was fairly groundbreaking in mysteries. All things considered, I have to recommend that you consider this long series of books as significant even though I don’t enjoy them myself.

5. Bertha Cool

66209135_129882075306Bertha Cool was a professional private investigator (and business partner of Donald Lam) in a series of 29 novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, published between 1939 and 1970. She is significant as a detective not for her skills, which were ordinary, but for the type of person that she was, at a time when there were no other such positive characters in any kind of genre fiction. Bertha was big and fat, swore like a trooper, was aggressive and demanding in business dealings, and wasn’t afraid to get into physical fights with other women. (I am unaware of any instance where she gets into a fistfight with a man, but my money’s on Bertha.)

Bertha Cool is a rich and deep character and in order to last 29 volumes she must have had some resonance with the reading public. I think she’s a very unusual character for her time and place and deserves her place among great detectives — she alone could manage the antics of Donald Lam, keep him focused and driving towards a goal. And at the same time she “acted like a man” at a time when few women stood up for themselves in business, especially something like the private eye business.

The accompanying photograph is of actress Benay Venuta, who once made a pilot television programme for a proposed Cool and Lam series which never made it to air. She’s not quite as hefty and aggressive as my vision of Bertha, but there’s little appropriate visual reference material available that suits me.

6. Hilda Adams

critique-miss-pinkerton-bacon5Hilda Adams, R.N., is the creation of Mary Roberts Rinehart; she first came to the public’s attention in Miss Pinkerton, published in 1932, although I note she was actually part of two pieces from 1914 (see the bibliographic listing here). Miss Pinkerton was made into a successful film in 1932 as well, starring Joan Blondell as the crime-solving nurse. Here, she stands as a better example of a certain type of woman detective than Mignon Eberhart‘s Sarah Keate, but I value both these series for the same reasons (I’ve talked about the Sarah Keate films elsewhere). Prominent critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggested that Hilda Adams or Sarah Keate “are somewhat problematical (especially the latter)”. But I think I can make a case for their inclusion that might surprise him.

This idea could be explained at length in a blog post all its own, but I’ll try to make a long story short. My sense is that the creation of a crime-solving nurse character was an attempt, either conscious or unconscious, to bring into detective fiction an underserved market of young women of the lower and middle classes. In 1932, “nurse” or “teacher” were, for most women, the highest-status occupations available; “nurse romances” have been in existence almost since the days of Florence Nightingale, and they were meant to feed fantasies of lower-class women meeting and marrying higher-class men (by being as close as possible to the men’s status). But there had not yet been a mystery series character with whom these young women could identify, and of whom they could approve. Miss Pinkerton crossed the nurse romance with the detective novel, and the idea took hold. Nurse Adams might well be the long-ago ancestor of an immense number of modern-day light romantic cozy mysteries with simplified plots and I think for that reason she is a significant figure in the history of the woman detective. (I believe there are earlier “nurse mysteries”; for instance, 1931’s Night Nurse, with Barbara Stanwyck, might barely qualify, since there’s a crime involved. But the focus is on nurse rather than detective in most of them; Miss Pinkerton focuses on the detection. I’d be willing to believe there are earlier examples with which I’m not familiar, but Nurse Adams was the most successful.)

7. Nancy Drew

nancy-drew2Nancy Drew, written by the dozens of men and women who were published as Carolyn Keene, just about has to be on any list of great women detectives. I’ve said elsewhere that I have issues with this character. She exhibits all the moral certitude of a homeschooled member of a religious sect; she bullies her friends into doing dangerous things, and constantly sticks her nose in when it’s not appropriate or even polite. And she treats Ned Nickerson like crap, considering that it’s so painfully obvious that she’s a virgin that it’s not even worth mentioning. Ned never gets to third base as a payoff for picking up Nancy at the old haunted mansion on the outskirts of town, time and time again.

But Nancy Drew, bless her interfering heart, is on the side of the good guys and was responsible for making multiple generations of young women believe that they, too, could be detectives, or indeed anything they wanted to be. Her simple message, that a logical approach coupled with dogged perseverance solved all problems, echoes today. And if you asked 100 passers-by for the name of a female detective, I think you’d get about half “Miss Marple” and half “Nancy Drew”. That alone makes her worthy of inclusion on this list.

8. Loveday Brooke

dd6e49d1f60445bd80b926a16692b6edLoveday Brooke was a “lady detective” created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis whose stories appeared in the Ludgate Magazine in and around 1894. I have to say that my scholarship is not sufficient to be able to say anything truly original about this character; I’ve certainly read the stories and enjoyed them. I know that a Victorian-era woman detective has to be on this list as the precursor of all the others, but I’m not sufficiently widely read to know if Loveday Brooke is truly the one that should stand for the others, and I’m prepared to be corrected by people who know more about this topic than I do.

I do think that Loveday Brooke was created as a kind of curiosity for the reading public at the time, but the ramifications of such a creation have been truly extraordinary. In 2014, when this is being written, I believe there are about twice as many novels published every year in the mystery genre that have female detectives rather than males, and many thousands of them; all of this flows from the efforts of Ms. Pirkis and her fellow writers and we have to honour them by an inclusion in this list. I’ll look forward to the comments of others upon my choice.

9. Flavia de Luce

Flavia_on_Bike_Master_VectorsI’m not sure how to categorize or describe Flavia de Luce, except perhaps as an “original”. Flavia is the creation of Alan Bradley and has been the protagonist of six novels between 2009 and 2014; in the first book (winner of multiple awards, including the Agatha, Arthur Ellis and Macavity) she is eleven years old, in 1950, living in the village of Bishop’s Lacey in England, and aspires to be both a chemist and a detective. A “child detective” in itself is sufficiently unusual in the history of detective fiction as to be significant. The fact that the books are charming, delightfully written, intelligent, and frequently powerful — and completely avoid the saccharine or mawkish tropes that frequently crop up when adults write in the voice of a child — makes them even more valuable.

I have to say that Flavia de Luce is perhaps the least solid entry in this list; I’m not actually sure that she contributes anything to the history of women detectives in and of herself. But the books are so charming and well-written and intelligent, and Flavia herself is such a complete and fully-rounded character, that I could not resist including her. If she’s displaced a more worthy candidate, so be it; read these books anyway.

10. Kate Delafield

KatherineVForrestThis detective might be the least familiar name on my list. Kate Delafield is a lesbian homicide detective in Los Angeles, created by Katherine V. Forrest, and the protagonist of nine detective novels between 1984 and 2013. It has to be said that these books are not the best-written entries on this list; they have a certain awkwardness and emotional flatness that is sometimes hard to ignore. Why they are significant is that they are a ground-breaking look at the lives and social milieu of lesbians, written by a lesbian for a lesbian audience, and they are in polar opposition to the meretricious “lesbian confession” paperback originals written mostly by men in the 1950s and 1960s. Those books were ridiculous; these are realistic.

Katherine Forrest was among the first writers to realize that the mystery genre could be used to tell the stories of social minorities by making the detective an insider in that minority. Just as the books of Chester Himes gave readers the opportunity to see what it was really like to live in Harlem as a person of colour, and the Dave Brandstetter novels of Joseph Hansen did the same for gay men, so Kate Delafield’s investigations reveal how lesbians live, work, think, and love. They are important because they were among the first such novels to merge the story of a female minority with the genre traditions of the mystery, and they revealed to many other writers (the entire huge output of Naiad Press, for instance) that it was possible to legitimately tell real lesbian stories using the mystery form and other genre traditions. These days, this has been widely imitated by writers within many other minority traditions, some parsed very finely; Michael Nava tells the story of a Hispanic gay man dealing with HIV issues within the larger gay community, for instance, in a series of powerful mysteries. But Katherine V. Forrest broke this ground for lesbians and became a model for many other minority voices.

October 8 Challenge

I’m submitting this for my own “October 8 Challenge” under the heading of “Write about a group of GAD mysteries linked by authors of a single sex.” Yes, I think it bends the rules; if you wish to put a semi-colon after the word “authors”, feel free.  This piece is about GAD and gender, so since I’m in charge, I’ll accept this. ;-)  As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m trying to stimulate creativity, not strict adherence.

october-8-challenge-chart1

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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


{A96FA31C-4BCA-44E1-A4FD-09DDDB2B0667}Img100Author:
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.

The Truth About Murder (1946)

$(KGrHqN,!g0E-8sG8DnfBP2LgKe3rQ~~60_35Title: The Truth About Murder

Author: Original screenplay by Lawrence Kimble, Hilda Gordon, and Eric Taylor.  My contention is, see below, that this also contains uncredited contributions by Jonathan Latimer.

Other Data:  April, 1946.  Directed by Lew Landers. Cast: Bonita Granville as Christine Allen.  Morgan Conway as District Attorney Lester Ashton.  Edward Norris as “William Ames Crane”, aka Bill Crane. (emphasis mine)

About this film: As is frequent for films which pique my interest, this went by on TCM the other day and I captured it upon my PVR for later review.  I’m glad I did; I think I’ve made a little bit of a discovery unknown to more learned experts than myself.  I’ll tell you more about the actual movie later on, but for the moment I’d like to focus on Jonathan Latimer.

Jonathan Latimer was a writer of pulp fiction and A- and B-movie screenplays who wrote a wide gamut of screenplays.  Some of his output is considered in the very top class, such as The Glass Key (1942), The Big Clock (1948) and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), based on novels by Dashiell Hammett, Kenneth Fearing and Cornell Woolrich, respectively.  Others are more in the B category — 1939’s The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt and 1953’s Plunder of the Sun, for instance.  Later in his career he switched to TV and wrote 31 episodes of Perry Mason and one of my favourite Columbo episodes, “The Greenhouse Jungle”.

But for mystery readers, those of us who pick up actual books now and then, Latimer is best known for five novels starring alcoholic PI Bill Crane.  These include Headed for a Hearse (filmed in 1937 as The Westland Case), The Dead Don’t Care (filmed in 1938 as The Last Warning), and The Lady in the Morgue (book from 1936, film from 1938) — all of which starred Preston Foster as Bill Crtane.  As Wikipedia ably puts it, the Bill Crane series “introduced his typical blend of hardboiled crime fiction and elements of screwball comedy”.  I agree with this assessment.  I particularly enjoyed The Lady in the Morgue, book and movie, for precisely this unusual combination.  Crane is constantly drinking, drunk, or sobering up, to the great detriment of his private eye work.  It’s strange to consider from the great distance of 2013, but my belief is that Crane’s drinking was not portrayed as being a problem for the amusement of his contemporary readers; he wasn’t presented as an “alky” or a “dipsomaniac”, he was simply a hard-drinking guy who liked his booze.  Much like The Thin Man, or Jake & Helene Justus.  Crane, however, had the occasional blackout and never seemed like a happy drunk, merely a constant one.

Simple research through Wikipedia and IMDB gives two facts.  One is that Latimer served in the armed forces during WWII and second is that he was occasionally uncredited for his work on movies like Whistling in Dixie, a 1942 Red Skelton vehicle.

Now back to The Truth About Murder.

Bonita Granville, who was successful in four outings as teenage detective Nancy Drew ten years or so previously, here plays a “woman lawyer” — a rare bird in this period — who works with district attorney Morgan Conway.  Morgan wants to marry her and keep her homebound and pregnant; she wants to experience the practice of law to its fullest, so resigns and goes into partnership with her hard-drinking lawyer buddy, Bill Crane.  (Aha!)  Bill’s wife is in love with someone else, but she won’t leave Bill for the man she loves while Bill’s self-esteem is in shreds.  The wife is killed, Bill is arrested, and Bonita and Morgan solve the mystery.  The finale, well foreshadowed, is quite interesting, with Bonita extracting some key information from the victim’s boyfriend, whom she has hooked up to a lie detector.

All in all, a fairly intelligent B mystery with some nice moments; I agree with the IMDB commenters who suggest that it’s not too tough to figure out the identity of the killer (who is one of a very limited cast of characters and about the only one with a motive).  It’s hard to say whether present-day feminists will approve or disapprove of the way “woman lawyers” are presented, but I feel certain it will interest them to see it.

I have to think that Latimer worked on this film, possibly contributing the Bill Crane character to an early draft.  The overlaps are just too clear.  He occasionally went uncredited for his work and, upon his return from WWII, he was perhaps wanting to re-establish his career. I’m pleased to say that this doesn’t seem to have occurred to other Latimer specialists, at least not according to my Internet research, so maybe, just maybe, I’ve made a tiny discovery.

Notes For the Collector: I’ve seen comments that suggest that this film has not been available on DVD, but has been shown a couple of times on TCM in my recent experience.   It’s not available via Amazon or TCM’s shop at the time of writing.  I understand that TCM is moving into a policy of making its lesser-known films available on DVD so this might be more available in the near future; at the moment, I wouldn’t call this “scarce” but a little bit hard to get, perhaps.  TCM’s recent screening was crisp and clear.

My favourite puzzle mystery writers (part 3)

Here’s another of my favourite puzzle mystery writers.

Erle Stanley Gardner
Yes, the author of Perry Mason is one of my favourite mystery writers. I have to say my affection goes back a long, long time. I was a precocious kid who read his way through Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys at an early age and moved directly into the mystery section of the local library — which, since at the time I was living on a small Armed Forces base, was composed of a bunch of Perry Mason novels and some writers I’d never heard of.  Perry Mason was fairly tame to adult sensibilities, and when I asked my mother to explain why Perry Mason was so interested in Della Street’s ankles as she got in and out of the car, she knew my pre-teen self couldn’t come to much harm.  So I enjoyed them as mysteries and left the grown-up stuff for others.

Erle Stanley Gardner

Gardner is not generally considered a writer of puzzle mysteries, by and large.  His blueprint was simple.  Start with a strange situation that would catch the reader’s attention — something mildly sexual and unusual, for which the average person would want a good lawyer on their side.  Add Perry Mason on the side of someone reasonably innocent.  Bring the situation to a rapid boil and add a murder.  Arrest Perry’s client and spend the rest of the book having Perry run amok while trying to exonerate his client.  Pretty much the last half of all the novels takes place in a courtroom.  Finish it off with a dramatic resolution wherein the guilty party confesses on the stand (for the most part) and stir with a dash of humour at the end.  And, by and large, Gardner didn’t feel the need to add any pesky characterization to complicate the mix.  Most of the characters in Perry Mason novels are labelled with a job and saddled with an alibi, and that’s their only distinction from the next suspect.

As an aside, Gardner did have one way of making his characters memorable; he gave the men unusual middle names. Possibly this was to protect himself from lawsuits because James Greevus Smith, banker, could be distinguished from almost any other James Smith, banker.  This didn’t happen so often with female characters, but married women often had an unusual maiden name.

Anyway, in terms of the traditional puzzle mystery, this lack of characterization is not a bad thing, by and large.  As I’ve remarked elsewhere, it was usually deliberate, in order to prevent the murderer being more noticeable by dint of being better characterized. It may well be, as I’ve often seen suggested, that Gardner was simply a writer who was unable to do much in the way of effective characterization, in which case his focus on puzzle mysteries was a mere fortunate coincidence or deliberate choice.  He was an experienced lawyer — it was unlikely for him to select the Western upon which to focus, let’s face it.

In his earliest novels, Perry Mason is more of a hard-boiled hard-punching lawyer who goes toe to toe against the villains and isn’t afraid to slug the occasional client-menacing gangster (for instance, The Case Of The Sulky Girl, TCOT Velvet Claws, TCOT Howling Dog, etc.).  But around the middle of World War II, he seems to have swerved in the direction of the puzzle mystery. I’ll suggest that the three most difficult puzzles in his oeuvre are TCOT Empty Tin (1941), TCOT Buried Clock (1943) and TCOT Crooked Candle (1944), but everything from about 1939 to 1947 is more strongly puzzle-oriented than the remainder of the novels. These novels actually have clues, physical clues, and are not merely sets of alibis against which to measure a set of circumstances.

And Gardner in this period avoids something that sustained his work in later years, which is to say the number of gorgeous women in sexualized situations is kept to a minimum.  By the 1960s, Gardner’s plots were pretty much what I call “femjep” — a beautiful woman is in physical danger from a criminal, or is the object of a bizarre plot that she doesn’t understand, and Perry steps in and saves the day, while the novel stops to describe the heroine physically and fairly lustfully every once in a while.

If you’re curious as to whether Gardner could write a good puzzle mystery — your mileage may vary.  Certainly he had a knack for coming up with story hooks that drag you into the novel (Why is a pretty young woman being paid to put on weight?  Why would someone steal a man’s glass eye?  Why would someone bury an alarm clock set to sidereal time?).  When he’s at his most puzzling, these hooks are absolutely relevant to the plot and not just discarded as soon as they’ve done the job of getting you to commit to the novel.  (For instance, that stolen glass eye is found clutched in the hand of the corpse.)  And occasionally, Gardner steps out and adds as much characterization as he can manage.  For instance, TCOT Empty Tin has a nosy spinster who is played for laughs — unusual in Gardner’s work — but who turns out to play a vital role in the plot. TCOT Drowsy Mosquito (1943) has some interesting “salty prospector” characters. And TCOT Vagabond Virgin (1948) has an actual attempt at a rounded characterization in the person of the titular hitchhiking tramp — as well as an interesting puzzle at its core.

If you’re looking for a puzzle mystery, you could do worse than the novels I’ve mentioned here by name. The paperback editions are not so omnipresent as they were when I was a teenager, but a visit to a good used bookstore will usually net you a couple of dozen titles from which to choose — try anything with a copyright date in the 1940s and you won’t be far wrong.

PS: Gardner also wrote a series of novels as by A. A. Fair about the adventures of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam, private investigators.  I can’t say that these impressed me as being anywhere near strict-form puzzle mysteries, but they are very enjoyable — more so than the last 15 years’ worth of Perry Mason novels, by and large.  These should be read chronologically.