It’s all my fellow bloggers’ fault: three lazy reviews

Women writers

My fellow mystery bloggers hard at work

It’s been a little while since I’ve been a very regular blogger, I’m sorry to say, and I’m going to take the liberty of blaming some of my recent laziness on the excellence of my fellow bloggers. Allow me to explain. Three times in the last few weeks, I’ve thought, “Oh, that particular piece would make a good blog post, because reasons.” Two books and an old mystery movie, to be precise. So I take the work and go through it a couple of more times, looking for themes, something unusual about this particular item, etc. And then I go and look on the internet and, darn it, someone by whose intelligence I have been impressed in the past has already taken the same item apart and explained it much better than I would have done, and — and this is the killing part — in fewer than a third the words it would have taken me to do it. How galling. ūüėČ

So may I recommend you to a couple of other reviews?

The Six Iron Spiders, Phoebe Atwood TaylorThe Six Iron Spiders, by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (she liked to sign herself PAT) from 1942, was well covered by the excellent (and enviably prolific!) Kate Jackson here, in her blog crossexaminingcrime in 2016. Kate notes the idea right off the bat that also made me think the book was interesting; that the civilian war effort is a crucial aspect of the plot as well as of the setting in this story.

WW2 First aid courseAsey Mayo, the “Codfish Sherlock”, is involved with a murder that happens in his own home at a meeting of volunteer first aid attendants being instructed in advanced techniques by Asey’s cousin Jennie. The story proceeds at PAT’s characteristic high-speed pace, with bodies that disappear and reappear and people running in all directions at high speed. The difference here is that everyone speaks through the shared lens of The War at its everyday level for the American populace. Thus high-speed chases are discouraged because tires for one’s personal vehicle are impossible to obtain, and people are constantly doing war-related things like spotting — sitting in a dark place looking for enemy aircraft/submarines — or studying first aid, or doing a kind of orienteering, where everyone agrees to meet in 90 minutes at an encoded location on a list everyone should have memorized.

As Asey remarks to himself near the end of the book,

“… it would be hard to plan a murder, and harder to commit one after you’d planned it. You couldn’t ever quite tell where your victim might be, what he might be doing, or how many other people might be watching you from a spotter’s station, or how many people might suddenly fly to the scene on a problem of one sort or another.”

Given the type of plotting that PAT is famous for, no wonder; the more confusion with people running around on secret business, the better. So that was the main point of interest for both of us. I must agree with Kate’s dislike of PAT’s¬†less than charming observations about women in slacks; I can only add in PAT’s defence that generally she was more tolerant of difference than many of her contemporaries, and actually seemed to me to champion a specific kind of ultra-competent womanhood. There are many examples of highly competent women in PAT’s novels, Jennie Mayo herself being a prime example.

Iron spider skillet

An iron spider.

And to answer the question shared by everyone who cannot see the cover art for most editions: “iron spiders” in this case are a Cape Coddy way of referring to cast-iron frying pans. The spider appears to me to have a longer handle and a deeper bottom than similar skillets.

Atomic Renaissance, by Jeffrey MarksIf you want more information about Phoebe Atwood Taylor, this most fascinating writer of fast-moving wholesome Americana, the only reference book worth your time is by a friend of mine, Jeff Marks. ¬†Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s is the only volume to give you the background on this madcap writer. I will forgive Jeff that his blog, The Corpse Steps Out, doesn’t get enough attention because I know that his biographies of mystery writers always take a long time to research and are just fascinating when they get to us … write faster, Jeff!

Murder by the Clock poster, 1931

MURDER BY THE CLOCK, 1931

Next I was going to have a look at an old film from my archives,¬†Murder by the Clock from 1931, based on two works by mystery writer Rufus King. “Oh, good,” I thought idly, “there’s a book AND a movie that I can talk about, and Inspector Valcour deserves some attention.” Cliff Aliperti at his blog¬†Immortal Ephemera, to my horror, had more to say about the movie in his excellent piece found here than I would have done, and — oh, the shame — at even greater length, because he knew about many

Murder by the Clock, Rufus King

Murder by the Clock, by Rufus King (Popular Library #31 from 1944)

filmic things I’d never heard of. Then when I found that my superbly well-read friend John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books¬†had in 2012 done an in-depth look at the book … found here … my review was mentally being wadded into a ball and tossed away. Why bother, when these guys totally get it already? John’s assessment that this book is more like Ross MacDonald than any of King’s contemporaries is just brilliantly insightful, and I like King’s playful way with language just as much as he does. One tiny correction to a comment in John’s column; the William Boyd who plays the lead here is not the same William Boyd as became Hopalong Cassidy. The lead actor here called himself William “Stage” Boyd to distinguish himself from the man who later became Hoppy, and nearly ruined Hoppy’s film career by being involved in a scandal. ¬†Fascinating stuff. ¬†But the two actors had the same name, which made it very confusing.

Murder by the Clock, 1931

A lobby card from Murder by the Clock, 1931

Anyway, the movie has a creepy element injected into it that has nothing to do with the book of the same name, that I understand is taken from a stage play of Rufus King’s. An elderly woman is terrified of premature burial and has had an elaborate system installed ¬†that sounds a booming horn outside the family mausoleum, if she should wake up in her coffin. Shades of Edgar Allan Poe, right? The horn, as you may well expect, goes off at least once during the movie and if you’ve been following along, it will make you jump when it booms. The really amazing thing about this movie, though, is the performance of Lilyan Tashman playing, apparently, She Who Must Be Obeyed. Tashman takes the ball from Theda Bara and runs with it. She is the Vamp¬†ne plus ultra and can apparently rule every heterosexual male in sight with just a whiff of her perfume. Valcourt is made of stronger stuff, though — although the fact that Rufus King was gay may have something to do with his resistance. Lilyan Tashman is a fascinating figure who died only a few years later at age 33, probably from breast cancer, leaving only a handful of fascinating performances by which to judge her. Here, she’s really something. The movie is definitely worth a look for her alone, since the mystery plot will not occupy your mind for long. As of today, you can find it here on YouTube.

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley

Jumping Jenny, by Anthony Berkeley (Penguin #6)

After being outdone twice, I thought I’d have a look at something by a favourite author of mine,¬†Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley (1933). (Published in the US as¬†Dead Mrs. Stratton.) This time I looked first to save myself some time — sure enough, Kate had looked at this¬†book six months ago. Karyn Reeves, at A Penguin a week, also had a look at this one some years back. Both bloggers have insight into what’s going on here and have given us interesting assessments; not much more for me to add.¬†I’m going to have to start unearthing books that are far more scarce!

I agree with Kate Jackson that this is a kind of variation on¬†The Poisoned Chocolates Case, in that Berkeley’s plot makes it clear that the truth about what happened to the completely obnoxious Mrs. Ena Stratton is entirely a function of who happens to be telling the story of her death. The story begins by … well,¬†sort of¬†telling you who commits the murder, but anyone familiar with Berkeley’s over-the-top cleverness knows that it can’t end there. Ena is constantly threatening to kill herself, as one of a vast range of attention-getting stratagems that have infuriated everyone around her, and when she is found hanged after a bizarre party, no one is surprised. Berkeley’s detective, the Silly Ass Roger Sheringham, traces the peculiar course of a chair upon which Mrs. Stratton did or did not stand, as various characters report having moved it here, there, and everywhere around the roof upon which her body is found. It seems as though everyone lies to the police at every opportunity and Sheringham is the only detective in a position to find out what really went on. Again, the experienced Berkeleyite will know that there is always one final twist at the end of the tale, and so it is here. I think you will be ultimately surprised when you learn who did what to Ena Stratton, and when; the final pages hold the final punch.

“Jumping Jenny” is a colloquial back-formation from Robert Louis Stevenson for a hanged woman, which practice thankfully died out some time in the 20th century nearly everywhere on earth. Its male equivalent is the “jumping jack”, the phrase Stevenson used; to my knowledge the exercises that one does in calisthenics classes are named after the jerks and spasms of a person who’s just been hanged. Perhaps your instructor will switch to more strenuous pushups, as mine did when I mentioned this cheerful fact. I need to learn to keep things to myself sometimes. ūüėČ

The Sleeping Sphinx, John Dickson Carr

The Sleeping Sphinx, by John Dickson Carr (Bantam #996)

The reason I mention the bizarre nature of the party is that it has an echo in another great mystery by a great writer. Here, as in John Dickson Carr’s¬†The Sleeping Sphinx (1947), there is a party at which people dress up as “a well-known murderer or his victim.” In Carr’s book, this is two days before Christmas (!). Okay, who has parties like this?

Sheringham notes that the host is a writer of detective stories and that the idea of the party

“… exactly carried out the light-handed treatment of death in his books. There were about a couple of dozen guests, certainly not more, and each one was supposed to represent a well-known murderer or his victim. The idea was not strictly original …”

This seems to me to be saying that at some point in the past someone had given such a party, and not in a fictional sense either. My online searches revealed nothing about who might have done so, but either Carr and Berkeley are referring to the same thing or else Carr is referring to Berkeley, which is likely — the idea has a certain¬†Grand Guignolerie about it that would appeal to Carr. My first instinct is to suggest that both writers seem to be taking for granted that there is a really high standard of literacy extant about readers’ knowledge of famous murderers and what they looked like. At one point Sheringham remarks that Una Stratton had dressed up as Mrs. Pearcey and another guest as Mary Blandy. Pearcey was executed in 1890 and Mary Blandy in 1752 and I cannot imagine that the average person of 1933 would have known what they looked like, or how they dressed. Nor can I imagine going to a party dressed as a famous murderer; even less as a famous victim. It just seems in very poor taste regardless of period. Would you want to go to a party dressed as Sharon Tate or O.J. Simpson?

Cordially invited to meet death, Rex Stout

“Cordially Invited to Meet Death”, a novella by Rex Stout, this newspaper insert edition from 1943

I know from an old Nero Wolfe story, “Cordially Invited To Meet Death”, that there was such a profession as “party-arranger” that encompassed activities like that. Bess Huddleston, in the story, arranges “the Striker dwarf and giant party”, among other such extravaganzas (including an abortive attempt to hire Wolfe to attend a party and solve an imaginary crime). But enticing people to dress up like murderers or victims to have a party is just beyond me. It’s hard to prove a negative, but I hope the Carr/Berkeley reference to such a party is merely a detective writer’s way of establishing mood and not a kind of party that actually existed.

(added 12 hours later) It occurred to me that one of the characters mentions the recipe for¬†‚Äúchicken √† la Toulousaine‚ÄĚ. It’s not difficult and quite tasty: there’s a recipe here.

***

I think the lesson is clear that I will have to look further into the recesses of Noah’s Archives to find things about which my fellow bloggers haven’t already spoken. Well, consider me as doing the literary equivalent of spitting on my hands … But it is a pleasure to recommend good work by other bloggers too. Now that I have managed to master the intricacies of the linking function at the top left of this page, I can recommend entire blogs to your attention where I merely cited individual articles before. Go through the three dozen links there and see where your fancy leads you!

 

 

 

 

The Hidden Hand (1942)

6p8rlsnThe Hidden Hand (1942)¬†came to my attention recently¬†as a result of my having a DVR; now I can record things that are shown in the wee hours of the morning, for instance, without worrying whether I’ll actually care to watch them at a more suitable time. This is a pleasure I haven’t always had, and I appreciate it.

There was some Golden Age of Detection (GAD) interest (and a few of my own hobbyhorses being ridden) that sparked my curiosity sufficiently to give it a go. Aside from an interesting set of writing credits and a low-cost but well-chosen cast, this is an interesting example of a favourite sub-genre of mind, Old Dark House (ODH).

hiddenhand00ODH¬†as a sub-genre started very early, in about the 1910s as the basis for novels and silent movies. It¬†has a basic¬†story that takes place at, yes, an old house that is poorly lit. Inside the house, there is at least one insane killer, pretty much, who is hiding somewhere in the house and creeps around via secret passages, making things happen from behind sliding panels, and keeping an eye on things from behind an oil painting where the painted eyes can be replaced by those of a real person. The electricity is out, the telephone wires have been cut, and there’s a report of an escaped lunatic on the radio. Add in beautiful young girls, large amounts of money and/or jewelry, and lots of frustrated heirs and … well, you pretty much know what happens.

6Ra7ngnQrYlP8nFwxNP2maGkcaXThe credits told me that the screenplay was based on a 1934 play called “Invitation to a Murder” by Rufus King, an excellent mystery writer of the GAD period. The interesting thing to the film buff about this is that I looked into the play and found that it was a Broadway vehicle for the pairing of Gale Sondergaard, as the crazy matriarch, and Humphrey Bogart, as her crazy brother. I expect¬†that Bogart’s salary in 1942¬†would have been more than what is apparently the whole budget for this film, so it’s understandable that they didn’t ask him to repeat his role. Frankly, at this point I think Gale Sondergaard’s salary would have been more than the budget of this cheapie. But gosh, I wish they had had recorded the play in some way. What a fascinating piece of film that would have been!

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Willie Best

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Milton Parsons (L), Cecil Cunningham (R)

IMDB told me that a few interesting minor Hollywood faces were part of the cast. These days I’m a big Willie Best fan; the man was a dependable character actor who made a LOT of movies and I’m always interested in his role in a film (asking
yourself why a film needs a “comedy Negro” is frequently an interesting question). Here, he gets fourth billing as the houseboy Eustis ahead of a lot of white people, which was not always the case. Wade Boteler (Sheriff Selby, uncredited) played all kinds of policemen in a long career — his is a face you will vaguely recognize if you follow stock actors. Monte Blue as the undertaker, uncredited — Mr. Blue was a romantic lead¬†in the silent days and kept working until 1960. You can see Milton Parsons, the “crazy brother”, in lots of old mysteries of the period; I first saw his distinctive face¬†as Dr. A. Tomic in the B classic Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome.¬†And Cecil Cunningham, who plays the crazy matriarch Lucinda¬†Channing,¬†had a long career playing matriarchs and divas.

And the plot that is portrayed by this ensemble of second- and third-tier, but hard-working, character actors? I think it would be kind to say “Not much.” I’ve seen this film twice through today, and I am still at a loss as to why exactly some things happen — and the second time through, I was trying to find out. This is not a film where you want to be tracing down motivations and timetables; this is designed to be what I believe audiences of the period might have understood as a “thrill ride”. And although the boundaries and definitions of Old Dark House are quite elastic, there are many, many elements in this film that will speak specifically of ODH to the average viewer.

tumblr_met56io91z1qz72v7o1_500A wealthy elderly woman, who is later revealed to be pretty much a homicidal maniac, goes to some trouble to spring her brother, who is immediately revealed to be pretty much a homicidal maniac, from his lunatic asylum. It’s not absolutely clear why, but certainly Lucinda¬†wants to further her brother’s¬†homicidal career because she takes pleasure in its violent results. Simultaneously, she has also called together her relatives, most of whom are anxious to get money from her fairly immediately, and the requisite “nice young couple”. The family arrives nearly simultaneously with the escaped brother who, in a nice touch, arrives at the house in the rumble seat of the car full of officials come to warn Lucinda. It appears that Lucinda has been passing as entirely sane but is about to decompensate rapidly. However,¬†everyone, including her Asian houseboy and her “coloured” houseboy (Willie Best), treats her as being sane at the outset.

It seems as though Miss Lucinda has¬†brought her greedy relatives to her house for a couple of general reasons; she wants to taunt them by threatening to leave her money to her¬†innocent young secretary, the daughter of an old beau, and she wants her crazy brother to kill them. I think. It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on here, frankly, but here is where the elements of ODH begin to come in and things start to make less and less sense. Miss Lucinda, as I noted, is apparently sane. However, she has created a network of secret passages throughout her house, including a couple of lookouts where a secretive viewer’s eyes replace those of a family portrait or peep through a decorative artwork while spying on a room. Rather hard to explain those to a renovator, but … what the heck. Even more¬†difficult to explain is a death trap whereby a greedy treasure-seeker spins a wall-mounted wheel according to a clue sheet, thinking to expose a secret cavity and a quarter of Miss Lucinda’s fortune. Instead, a trap door opens and the treasure-seeker plummets dozens of feet through a huge cavern into a swiftly-flowing underground river. Which runs directly under the living room and somehow miraculously bypasses the cellars. That must have been exceptionally difficult to arrange with the architect, I think.

At one point, Miss Lucinda arranges to be put into a state of suspended animation, feigning death so she can observe the behaviour of her heirs. She entrusts the injection of the cure to one of said heirs, who predictably declines to inject her; but she’s been too wise for that old gag. A maid dies by drinking a glass of water and¬†a character later knowingly mentions the smell of bitter almonds. The maid’s body disappears — pretty much all the bodies disappear and pop up again in a different context to incriminate someone else. People betray their spouses or partners, expecting to inherit. There’s a spinning wall in one of the rooms behind which bodies appear and disappear. And poor Willie Best keeps seeing dead bodies and mysteriously-vanishing sandwiches that no one else can see, rendering him predictably googly-eyed with terror.

In the end, after a brisk 63 minutes of ODH hijinks, most of the bad people are dead, the young lovers will inherit, and Willie Best accidentally triggers the death trap and hangs over the underground river clutching the wall-mounted wheel for dear life as the credits play.

There is truly not much sense to be had here. I think the dedicated viewer of old B-movies will understand my sensation that the plot was capable of going just about anywhere it needed to, in order to provide thrills and surprises at five-minute intervals. In abstract terms, there is so much plot going on here to support the characters that there isn’t really time for anything to make sense in 63 minutes. The crazy matriarch and her crazy brother who are plotting against a handful of sinister relatives who have murder on their own minds — that’s a lot of murderous intent that has to be gotten across. Nobody has time for the library scene at the end where someone explains who exactly it was that poisoned Lucinda’s pet raven or why exactly Lucinda created a weird death trap in her living room, so they just ignore it.

When I started drafting this piece, I’d originally planned on ending up by commenting that ODH was a genre whose time had come and gone. William Castle actually re-re-made J. D. Priestly’s original¬†The Old Dark House in 1963 — but as a comedy. Someone had redone The Cat and the Canary in 1978, and that was pretty much the end of ODH as a genre. Or was it? I was idly surfing and found that someone had recommended a Tom Hanks movie called The ‘Burbs from 1989 as being a new take on ODH.

SpooksFor me, ODH has¬†always been based in the medium in which I first encountered it, Warner Brothers cartoons featuring¬†Bugs Bunny. And you know when a trope like ODH becomes a figure of mockery that it either dies completely or else is rebooted for a new generation in a much more sophisticated media environment, like what happened to Sherlock Holmes. But ODH is a set of interlocking cliches, based around a primitive technique of building suspense for a few seconds and then making a loud noise to give the audience a momentary frisson. ¬†Was ODH gone, vanished as a literary trope like stories about plucky orphans who become millionaires, or “white man finds a lost African kingdom” stories?

So while I tried to track down a copy of The ‘Burbs, I wondered. Really, it seemed to me that ODH had died because it had been eclipsed by the ability of the audience to be scared by much, much more dreadful sights than a hand poking out from a secret panel behind a picture and stealing sandwiches. For instance, a parasitic alien that bursts out of its host’s abdomen, etc. I think ODH was related to phenomena like the “spook show”, and scary entertainment that predated modern special-effects techniques;¬†all kinds of different horror tropes packed into one vehicle and conveniently labeled “Old Dark House” so you know what you’re getting — a little thrill, a little scream, and then a pleasant sense of relief from fear. (As I understand it, in pre-television days, teenage boys used to like to take girls to scary movies so that they could get hugged.) Things are a lot scarier now, and media consumers are more difficult to frighten.

I screened The ‘Burbs and — well, someone was off track. Certainly there is a creepy old house, but the plot is based around a suburban neighbourhood’s inhabitants to find out what’s going on inside it, and not about being inside it with weird things and masked figures scooting around. But it made me wonder why someone had drawn that connection. I thought about a lot of movies with which¬†everyone would be familiar, that had an “old dark house” element as a fairly major component, and some will be surprising to you. Psycho (1960), Scary Movie 2 (2001), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975); sure, you can see how that would fit naturally. But I confess that considering part of Fight Club (1999) and Misery (1990) as ODH tributes added a different dimension to two movies with which I thought I was already familiar. The elements of ODH like sliding panels and portraits with cut-out eyes have mostly vanished — although the revolving wall trick makes an occasional recurrence, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) — but all those elements have been absorbed into a vast sea of films and television about big rickety poorly-lit mansions. If your protagonist is in such an environment and there actually IS a sliding panel, the audience may not find it very original but they certainly won’t think it’s out of place.

I’m not expecting anyone to remake¬†Cat and the Canary,¬†The Bat or¬†The Old Dark House any time soon. But I’ve found it pleasant to trace the rise and fall of their underlying tropes and you may actually learn something about why it is that a big old poorly-lit house is used as a kind of shorthand for a package of cliches that produce “Boo!” moments. This might be a fun place to start.