Static detectives and evolving detectives

A-private-detective-001A question popped up today within the pages of my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection; a gentleman has been asked to lecture to a group of writers about series mysteries and asked for our thoughts.  Thanks, Dan Andriacco, for prompting my thinking processes; I had more to say than would be appropriate in that terse context, and so I’ve moved my efforts here.  I hope my thoughts will be useful to you and your group. I am assuming that this group intends to write mysteries that are sold to publishers for large sums of money, and thus my considerations are addressed more to marketability than to artistic considerations.

First of all, one ground rule; I believe that “series mysteries” require “series detectives”, so I’m going to address the idea of series detectives and use them interchangeably with series mysteries. Series mysteries, of course, are pretty much written by the same author about the same protagonist(s); some sort of detective figure who solves various cases (exceptions definitely exist for any of these terms).  A few names at random are Jane Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, and Ellery Queen. The most important thing in a series is its detective character; if that doesn’t catch the interest of the reading public, you won’t be selling a very long series.

I can certainly understand why writers would want to know more about series detectives. As I understand it, no major publisher will currently look at a stand-alone mystery from a fledgling author. One author told me that she had been told that she’d better come in with a written outline for at least an eight-book series, and that package should contain a publishable manuscript for volume 1, detailed outlines for volumes 2 and 3, detailed character sketches for the detective and any continuing characters, and a sketch plan for where volumes 4 through 8 should take the protagonist. My first reaction was, “Wow.” My second reaction was, “Thank goodness.”

I’ll explain that last snarky remark 😉 but first I have to divide series detectives into two major groups, because the two groups have different characteristics and are treated differently. I’ve invented these terms, but let’s call them static detectives and evolving detectives.

NSY S1E4.avi_snapshot_01.27_[2013.06.29_00.42.49]Static detectives are how series detectives began in the earliest days of detective fiction; back in the days when writers were staking out the basic principles of detective fiction by making it up as they went along, the reading public wanted exactly the same experience of the detective character in each story. The detective is pretty much the same person at the same level of personal development at every stage of every novel. Sherlock Holmes never changed in any major detail. He did not apparently age. He did not fall in love, court the object of his affections, and get married, and produce children who enter the family detective business.  He never suffered any major trauma that caused him to renounce his former avocation halfway through his series and devote his further efforts to being a storefront social worker, or move to Paris. Or, indeed, change his apartment or his deerstalker or his Persian slipper or have those bullet holes in the walls filled in.  Nothing ever changes. Occasionally a continuing character like Watson gets married, but their relationship does not change much.

In many instances other than Holmes’s, the life events of subsidiary characters in the lives of static detectives sometimes form the basis for specific novels — the detective is the maid of honour at her girlfriend’s wedding at which the best man is murdered. One of Nero Wolfe’s detective assistants is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and Wolfe must take the case.

bs-16-06-DW-Kultur-And of course evolving detectives are the other ones. I can’t precisely identify the first evolving detective, but I think there’s a strong case for the first important one to have been Lord Peter Wimsey. In the course of Dorothy L. Sayers’s oeuvre, Wimsey started as a single dilettante / wealthy aristocrat / Wodehouseian Silly Ass, met Harriet Vane, had a number of exciting adventures with her, grew as a human being and a fallible man, and finally married Harriet and produced children. I believe that one of the reasons why this series has had an enduring major presence in the history of detective fiction is that readers, many of whom seem in my experience to be female, enjoy very much the process of watching the romance, proposal, and honeymoon and are prepared to experience it again and again, re-reading the books again and again. Peter and Harriet are a great love story with detective interruptions, to misquote the subtitle of Gaudy Night, and the readers loved to see him change. He grew more subtle and more powerful as time went on. Today’s champion of the evolving detective is Elizabeth George, but Anne Perry is giving her a run for her money, and I bet a bunch of other authors with whom I’m not familiar are also on the best-seller list with this kind of Great Big Romantic Series.

In Lord Peter’s case the subsidiary characters did not change much at all; Bunter doesn’t change one iota during the course of the novels. People get older, like Viscount St-George, and the characters react to world events. But the subsidiary characters are used to serve the development of the character of the detective. Either they remain absolutely static, like a rock of stability to whom the detective turns in times of personal crisis, or they have dramatic things happen to them, like being murdered or accused of murder.

So those are the definitions, and you can probably at this point pick up any mystery novel with which you’re reasonably familiar and say, “Oh, this is a static detective,” or “This is an evolving detective.” At least I hope so; it’s pretty straightforward. Occasionally a static detective makes the jump to an evolving detective, like what happened when Dorothy L. Sayers decided to give Lord Peter some “guts”, as I remember she put it.

What’s interesting for a writer is, first of all, that the choice of a static or an evolving detective affects the way that the book should be structured; and second, that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures.

As far as how the book should be structured — I’ll suggest that my friend, above, got the right advice from her agent. If you are trying to sell a series detective today, it doesn’t really matter if it’s static or evolving, but you have to demonstrate to your prospective publisher that you know what you’re going to be doing eight books from now and are capable of committing to it. There’s no point in them putting together huge cardboard displays for bookstores that say, “The latest Harley Footsnoot mystery!!” if there are only ever going to be two Harley Footsnoot mysteries because you’re out of ideas. And the reason why they want the last five roughed out for them is, perish forbid, you get hit by a truck and they have to hire Eric van Lustbader to finish the series 😉

If you’ve decided you want to write an evolving detective, you absolutely must know what’s going to happen eight books from now; this is what the publisher will want to know. It’s also the kind of thinking that the reader has a right to expect that you’ve done when you start. If you want to tell the long story of a slow courtship, or how detective Harley Footsnoot realizes that her first husband is wrong for her but his best friend is her true love, over a dozen novels, I want to know that you know what happens in the long story arc and how it happens. You have to structure the first eight books before you write the second one; that way, if you need something to happen in book two that reverberates in book six, you’re always there in advance.  You cannot just make it up as you go along; you’ll produce an unsatisfying series.

And if you want to write a static detective, these days, that’s just fine too. Despite my saying above that it was a tradition from the beginnings of the genre, it’s still very much used today in the entry level of series cozies. Harley Footsnoot is a single mother, she runs a yarn store, and seems to get involved with a lot of local murders that somehow involve yarn. One of her two boyfriends is a cop and the other one is a handsome professor.  Can you see how this goes?  The books are always the same, Harley never changes, she can’t decide between her two boyfriends who themselves never change, and the yarn store rolls along at the same level. So what the publisher wants to see is how you’re going to come up with eight vaguely reasonable murder mystery plots that have something to do with yarn.

The idea that certain kinds of detectives require certain kinds of plot structures works this way.  First, for an evolving detective; you have to know where you are in the character’s development over a dozen novels.  For instance, the one I invented, the detective divorcing her first husband and marrying his best friend over a dozen books — somewhere around book three or four, you need a book where the detective’s husband does something untrustworthy that causes her to first consider that she might end up divorcing him. How that affects the structure of the book is that you have to have a murder plot that is based around trustworthiness.  Say, a small software company turns out to have someone unexpected looting its bank accounts from the inside. The evolving Harley Footsnoot gets to think about trust while she’s solving the case, and how it has reverberations in her own life, because she might be just as oblivious to untrustworthiness as the CFO whose husband stole her passwords.  And readers like this sort of thing very much; they will be pleased that you have created these interconnections between the detective’s personal life and her cases.

e02ab6050512e31c95ab58bf702f3a8eFor a static detective, you need to give a different kind of consideration to structuring the plots. Brainstorm for a minute and see if you can think of eight different murders that have something to do with a yarn store. Well, an employee of the yarn store has a double life and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … someone opens up a yarn store across the street and gets murdered and Harley is suspected … a noted yarn collector comes to town to sign her book about yarn, gets murdered, and Harley is suspected … that’s three, and I’m fresh out. My point is that it gets more and more ridiculous that eight mysteries should happen in the same little town and all of them connected with yarn. Just like the good people of Cabot Cove should have been very, very reluctant to have dinner with Jessica Fletcher, it’s nearly impossible to keep doing the same type of plots over and over. She might be static as a character, but she can’t be as a detective.

If you’re going to write eight books or more about a static yarn expert, you have to structure the life of the detective so that she moves around. Don’t put her in a yarn store — that’s your fantasy life talking, not novelistic necessity. Instead, think of a reason why she interacts with different yarn situations. For instance, she is in charge of acquisitions for the world’s only yarn museum, run by a wealthy eccentric. So she goes to San Francisco and visits a yarn collector, she goes to London for a yarn exposition, she goes to rural Louisiana to acquire a collection of antique yarn. The structure doesn’t have to involve physical motion; for instance, one great static detective was Emma Lathen’s Wall Street banker, John Putnam Thatcher. Each book took him into a different area of business; automobiles, biotech, real estate. He was always meeting new groups of people who had a murder to deal with, but at the same time his group of workers (perfect secretary Miss Corso, and his three wildly different subordinates Trinkham, Bowman, and Gabler) remained dependable and unchanging subordinates.

So both evolving and static detectives have sets of static subsidiary characters who rarely change. The difference is that in a static book, the excitement and emotions come from strangers, and the continuing characters are the refuge (and the readers’ favourites). In an evolving book, the excitement and emotions come from continuing characters, and frequently the strangers are the refuge (the bitter unhappy detective throws herself into her work).

But it’s important to note that your static subsidiary characters need to have a constant utility in the plot; you can’t just give your detective a best friend because everyone has a best friend. Remember how Static Harley had two boyfriends, a cop and a professor?  That’s because the professor is always doing research for her and coming up with crucial information to move the plot forward, and the cop bends the rules and gets her information she shouldn’t be able to access (arrest records) and protects her physically if people get violent. Holmes had Watson because he needed someone to whom to speak aloud, so that the reader could follow his thoughts to some extent. But Watson was also a doctor, and that occasionally came in handy with fainting clients or on-the-spot autopsy reports.

There’s one other crucial difference between static and evolving detectives that may affect a writer’s decision to focus on one or the other style; it might depend on how generally cheerful a person she is. That’s because static detectives are allowed to be happy — evolving detectives cannot be. Even Harley Footsnoot’s switch to marrying her first husband’s best friend cannot be allowed to flourish in perfection; either he gets killed in book eight (which results in her third marriage in book sixteen), or she discovers that he too has terrible flaws that cause her to be agonized for another eight books before deciding to go it alone and lonely.  If you run a yarn business, though, you frequently get the opportunity to spring your brother-in-law from jail in the second-last chapter and then the book ends as you explain at a jolly family picnic how you figured it all out from the mismatched yarn strands. If you’re naturally a depressive type, you might want to do your mental health some good by working on books where people are occasionally happy.

So why, when my friend told me she’d been asked to plan eight books in advance, did I think, “Thank goodness!”?  Because I read — until I pretty much gave up reading most modern mysteries, for reasons not unconnected with these ideas — far, far too many books where the author lost his way. Evolving detectives who just sit around and are gloomy without learning anything from it (I’m talking to you, ScandiNoir authors). Static detectives where the 32nd consecutive murder at the same charming Cape Cod B&B should have had the proprietor locked up on general principles years ago.  Evolving detectives who hardly bother with the murder plot because they’re too busy quarrelling with their romantic partners; static detectives who apparently ignore the necessities of everyday life at the drop of a hat to go off and track down a clue. Evolving detectives with personal lives that make Dynasty look sedate, and which would likely get them suspended from the police force; static detectives whose perfect lives are wish-fulfillment fantasies of motherhood, business ownership, and the Kama Sutra with her chiseled cop hubby. And very particularly the protagonist’s best friend who is chubby and a figure of fun, but at the 2/3 point of the novel says something witty that turns out to give the detective the idea needed to solve the case. Because every subsidiary character will have a strong function in the plot that will allow them to be memorable without making them two-dimensional. Not like the works of some authors (I’m talking to you, Charlaine Harris) whose books are so cluttered with subsidiary characters left over from other books, and with no functions at all, that there’s barely room for anything other than a round of howdy-dos.

If you plan eight books ahead, you will know where you are at all times in the progress of your evolving detective’s tumultuous life, and you won’t clutter the books with vivid but useless characters. And in the progress of your static detective, you’ll have arranged to have plots that naturally take the protagonist into contact with lots of strangers who murder each other, while the detective’s home life remains non-violent and cozy. You will have planned out the continuing characters so that they’ll be useful and consistent and do what you need them to do. And you might actually get my $8.95 in a bookstore — times eight.

October 8 Challenge

Whoops! Some hours ago when I posted this, I forgot to claim it for a square in my own challenge; see below.  This is about square 2D, a group of GAD mysteries linked by a style of detective or detection.  (In fact, two different styles.)

october-8-challenge-chart1

 

The Monogram Murders, by Sophie Hannah (2014)

The Monogram Murders,  by Sophie Hannah (2014)


thAuthor: Sophie Hannah,
born 1971, came to the public eye first as a poet and a translator of children’s books. In 2006 she published the first of what so far has been nine well-received works of crime fiction in what’s known as the Waterhouse and Zailer series. The series has sold exceptionally well in the U.K. and two very popular ITV television productions have been based on her works.

For further information about her published works, the Wikipedia article is here; I recommend care since they have not provided a clearly chronological listing but instead divided her publications into a number of different categories.  (A surprisingly large number of different categories; this author has many interests.) For an interesting take on her career considering her as a poet, the British Council’s take is found here, and the author’s own website is here. The British Council material has a couple of interesting observations about her crime fiction in general.

Sophie HannahHannah has entered into an arrangement with the estate of Agatha Christie to publish this new work using Christie’s character Hercule Poirot.

Publication Data: The first edition of this novel was published September 9, 2014; about four days before the writing of this post. It is currently available in bookstores everywhere and, doubtless, is stacked to the rafters on pallets at Costco. There is a Kindle edition available here and doubtless other formats, but not, at the time of writing, paperback. The copy I used was electronic and from my local library (thanks to a helpful librarian who prefers to remain nameless but, like all her kind, is devoted to bringing books to people who want to read them and deserves our respect).

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will concern large chunks of information about the plot and characters of this book. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply.

In this particular review I have not come close to naming any guilty party or revealing any crucial plot details. 

Monogram-Murders_612x952I’m not going to say much about the plot of this book because I expect that it will affect your enjoyment of it should you choose to read it. In bare bones, here’s what happens at the outset; Detective Catchpool of Scotland Yard has fallen into the orbit of Hercule Poirot, who is enjoying a bizarre staycation at a rooming house to get out of his regular routine without leaving town. Three people are found dead in separate rooms on separate floors of a hotel, and in each of their mouths is found a monogrammed cufflink. It is soon discovered that all three people have been involved in each other’s lives in the past, and a long-ago death seems to have had repercussions that reverberated into the present. Catchpool investigates the physical circumstances of people and objects, and Poirot wanders around and says enigmatic things about things that might have happened, or how to view and interpret small events, in order to urge Catchpool to greater effort in improving his detecting skills. Catchpool thereby comes to a number of wrong conclusions, including a couple into which Poirot maliciously misleads him.

At the end, Poirot gathers a large number of people, including hotel staff, into a hotel ballroom and delivers three chapters of explanation as to what happened in everyone’s lives that led to the three deaths. After a fairly exciting and dramatic conclusion, almost everyone lives happily ever after.

monogram-murdersheaderWhy is this book worth your time?

Well, you know, it barely is worth your time. It’s certainly not worth your time at the price you’ll have to pay for a first edition, even at Costco. As I like to say, this is the sort of work that you can wait until it comes out in paperback and THEN avoid it. But there is just enough skill here to keep it from being part of my category of “100 mysteries you should die before you read.” This one won’t kill you, unless it annoys you to death. Sophie Hannah is an able writer who has marketable skills, and this is a competent novel. There are no obvious plot holes, nothing that just doesn’t add up.

I deal with a lot of people regularly who are interested in Golden Age mysteries, and they read them and review them and talk about them. For people like us, this book is environment-forming; this is a significant development in the history of the single most important Golden Age mystery writer and, if this catches on, we may find ourselves inundated by Poirot and Marple authorized fanfic, as it were. But if this is the level of quality we’re going to get, no, it will not be worth much of our time, and after a few such contractually-obligated efforts, the re-animation of Poirot will cease.  (The literary equivalent of a DNR.)

This is not a great mystery or even a believable one. It merely has the legal right to say that Hercule Poirot is a character within its pages. Thus it is interesting in a way that — oh, how can I put this.  If you’re at a dinner party and someone serves you a dish like this, you think of something to say that’s complimentary about a particular excellence of the creative effort, like the innovative spirit that made the chef put fresh lime juice on the scalloped potatoes, and then you push it around with your fork until it’s time for dessert. It doesn’t really matter that the chef is well-known for cooking other kinds of food. It doesn’t matter that only a very few people in the world have the right to add that very particular flavour of Belgian lime juice to the potatoes, because it still tastes weird. And all you can really do is refuse the next invitation to dinner from such a chef.

“People have been cooking and eating for thousands of years, so if you are the very first to have thought of adding fresh lime juice to scalloped potatoes, try to understand that there must be a reason for this.”

Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life (1978)

I haven’t used the word “fanfic” lightly; as near as I can tell, the impulses that lead a person to produce an original work about a copyrighted character and publish it on the internet, or in a photocopied hard copy, are that the person honours the writer, respects the character, and is unable to stop living in that character’s world without new fantasies. Obviously this is a different impulse than that which motivated Sophie Hannah. Hers was probably immense buckets of cash and an iron-clad contract for four more with an option. But the outcome is the same. This is a novel about Hercule Poirot that had nothing to do with Agatha Christie’s mind, or inspiration, or pen, and its reasons for existence have nothing to do with literary achievement.

This sort of post-mortem continuation has been rare, thus far (except in the rarefied reaches of trufan fanfic, which frankly are beyond either my understanding or my patience). The first such continuation I can recall in the puzzle mystery world is the series about a little old lady detective named Miss Seeton, with the five-book series begun by Heron Carvic in the late 60s – mid 70s and continued well after his death in 1980, first with three by James Melville under a different pseudonym, and then 14 by Sarah J. Mason under yet another pseudonym. The complicated bibliography, courtesy of stopyourekillingme.com, is found here, but the point is that the original author only wrote 5/22 of the series. Later on, Rex Stout’s series about Nero Wolfe has continued post-mortem with nine novels by Robert Goldsborough, the latest of which was in 2014.

And of course Sherlock Holmes, where frankly the weight of accumulated fanfic, parody, homage and secondary materials would probably sink 221B Baker Street into the ground were anyone foolish enough to load the building with it. Sherlock Holmes has become the fictional character who is in more films than any other (Dracula is second). In my personal collection I have two textbooks on how to bid at contract bridge wherein Sherlock explains it all to Watson, and a kind of Biblical treasure hunt wherein Sherlock explains complex and fairly ridiculous points of Biblical hairsplitting in the voice of the author. I also have a complete set of the animated cartoon “Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century” wherein Holmes is a reanimated clone, Watson is a robot, and Lestrade is a beautiful female expert in hand-to-hand combat. Yes, really. The character of Sherlock Holmes has been assraped so many times by so many callous authors that his current American television incarnation as a New York tattooed hipster with a drug problem, and an Asian female Watson, is barely even remarkable.

I have spoken in these pages before about the “tie-in” novel which leads to objects like “Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx” or “The Gracie Allen Murder Case Game”. The tie-in is based on the premise that, if there is a particular piece of writing that you like, you are likely to like other pieces of writing which take place against a common background. For instance, I have squirrelled a bunch of “Indiana Jones” paperback originals. They have no relationship to any existing film except that they all have a drawing of Harrison Ford on the cover; the stories seem designed to appeal to a 12-year-old pre-pubescent boy. Closer to home, you should take a look at the entry in Wikipedia for Ellery Queen. Among the ancillary products associated with this character are comic books, board games, computer games, films, graphic novels, radio and television programmes, and a couple of postage stamps. Tie-ins in the mystery realm are nothing new. This sort of tie-in material that we’re looking at here — because a “continuation novel” is pretty much the same to me as a “tie-in novel” — has the same quality as a tote-bag bearing Hercule Poirot’s silhouette, or a Hercule Poirot video game of “Murder on the Orient Express” (which I’ve played, and it’s pretty good).

poirot-link_1I think, though, that it’s necessary to talk about what is being purchased here, because I have a feeling that a lot of people think they’re about to read something that is like an Agatha Christie novel. Think of it instead as a tote bag. The purpose of the object is to fulfill a function that could easily be fulfilled by many other similar objects, most of them less expensive; a tote bag holds shopping and a novel can be read. But the purpose of purchasing the object is to somehow associate yourself with an evanescent quality; the feeling that you, as a reader, had when you read those authentic Christie novels.

This is very hard to describe; perhaps it’s easier to understand with the tote bag standing in (the one with a silhouette of Poirot on it) for The Monogram Murders. You bought that tote bag because of how it made you feel; perhaps, as you pick it up to go out the door for a round of shopping, you get a little smile knowing that other people will know that you are a connoisseur of good Golden Age detective fiction. Perhaps it’s that you are very fond of Poirot; perhaps it was an idle whim that prompted your purchase. (Even if it was an idle whim, something made you select Poirot as opposed to, say, Mike Hammer or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Marilyn Monroe.) The fact that it holds your shopping is a good thing, but to be honest there are many such bags and some are free at the supermarket. You bought the tote bag not because of function but because you wanted to have an emotional experience associated with the pleasurable experience of reading Agatha Christie novels. In a way, you have chosen to advertise for the brand of your own accord.

And that’s what’s happening here. I suspect that 98 percent of the people who buy and read this novel in first edition will believe, as they turn the last page, that they have just read a puzzle mystery that is as good as anything Agatha Christie ever did; that they have been dealt with fairly, so that no clues have been omitted or hidden; and that their friends will draw certain favourable conclusions about their intellectual activities and abilities, should they happen to see “The Monogram Murders” lying on the coffee table. They choose, in fact, to associate with the Agatha Christie brand experience and advertise on its behalf. (Remember, if one such book is much like another, they can certainly do the job more cheaply by buying, of all things, an authentic Agatha Christie novel and carrying it around.) And whoever is responsible for putting together this package on behalf of the Christie estate will have brought in a lot of money and created a lot of buzz.

The remaining 2 percent of us — some of whom will be reading this, I trust — know what they’ve read, because they have read huge numbers of similar novels. We have already associated ourselves with the Agatha Christie brand, because it’s a useful form of shorthand when explaining our reading tastes to strangers at cocktail parties. “I read Golden Age mysteries.  You know, like Agatha Christie.” “Ahh, yes.” We are familiar with whodunits and whydunits and howdunits and open mysteries and police procedurals, locked rooms and unreliable narrators and Ten Rules for this and that.  And we have pretty much already read ALL the Agatha Christie novels. It’s you — us — to whom I’m speaking here.

For us, I think it’s safe to say that we will be disappointed in the book qua book. This is not, in fact, a very good mystery. It is a so-so mystery that happens to have Hercule Poirot walking through it. It is far too … embellished; there are plot flourishes and idle references to other topics, and incomprehensible character arcs, and the occasional piece of extraneous philosophy. The crimes at the core of this novel are difficult to understand, certainly. They are complicated and involve events that happened 20 years ago, the reverberations of which have concatenated into the present. Bad blood for decades, old festering motives, strong emotions.

And the whole thing is just nonsense, because it doesn’t hang together. It’s missing one essential element that Agatha Christie could nearly always bring; the actions of the plot arise organically from the personalities of the characters. To pick a Christie at random, The Hollow, the crime that takes place would not have occurred in precisely that way if it weren’t for the characters of Gerda and her husband, and the young sculptress, and Lady Angketell.  We see these people sufficiently clearly to realize what they would and would not do, and we believe the emotional truths that Poirot discerns that determine guilt and innocence. In “The Monogram Murders”, we have a farrago of nonsense that’s been cobbled together in order to meet the plot demands of the story hook — three different corpses on three different floors of a hotel. Once that set piece of fireworks has been fired off, well, then someone has to explain it and it has to be complicated. So Hannah seems to have invented three very morally twisted people in order to generate the long string of plot twists that results in three full chapters of explanation; then she has to get them into the same village. Then she has to have someone do an action which is apparently completely against her character, so much so that she spends the rest of her life regretting it. Death, recriminations, hugger-mugger, brouhaha, three accusatory chapters, resolution.

I’m not even sure that it’s possible to write a sensible story based around that story hook, three bodies on three floors of a hotel. The convolutions that Hannah has to take her characters through in order to generate motive and situation are just tortuous;  I think, as a general rule of thumb, if it takes three full chapters at the end of the book to explain the activities of the plot, then there is a little too much plot. Part of that problem is that by the time we are introduced to the three most interesting characters in the action, they are dead. Which is fine, except that everything we are told about their behaviour and actions we have to take with a grain of salt because they’re not around to testify themselves. It adds an air of distancing to all the activities where Catchpool pokes around the nasty underbelly of the charming rustic community, and that takes away from any immediacy the novel might have. You’re listening to other people’s versions of important things that happened 20 years ago.

Then there’s a bunch of stuff that falls into the category of what I call “mystery cement”, because it’s put in only to make the mystery harder.  One, at random, is that our intrepid Scotland Yard investigator has a thing about dead bodies, and there are little flashbacks of his childhood to explain why. Later on in the book, he realizes that it’s not dead bodies per se by which he is revulsed, it’s being left alone with said dead bodies. Great. I think we are meant to grasp that he is making progress in detection, because he is learning that the simple assumptions about what underlies human behaviour are not always precisely correct. There’s an old quote from Chekhov, which I paraphrase as “If there’s a gun on the wall in Act I, it has to go off by Act III.” Agatha Christie’s guns on the wall always went off by Act III; Hannah’s do not. Far from being part of an exciting climax in which Catchpool gets left in a room with a dead body, this little piece of information just … vanishes.  And there’s quite a bit too much of that sort of thing for my taste in this book. Poirot gives Catchpool a significant look and winks and mugs, indicating, “Oh, this is an important clue, reader, it’s just that Catchpool is too stupid to know what it signifies.  So why don’t you worry at it for the next 150 pages until I tell you that it meant … absolutely nothing.”  I still don’t really know why the downward view of one of the hotel employees embracing a woman was even remotely significant, but I think I was just too darn exhausted after three chapters of explanation to take it all in. (Well, that and I’m lazy that way. Once I figured out it went nowhere, I ignored it.)

There are a few good things in this book, though; I must give full credit to the spirit of inspiration that put the lime juice on the potatoes in the first place. Hannah has created a couple of memorable minor characters, including a saucy waitress who really is the best writing in the book, and a feisty elderly lady villager who is hampered by having to mouth ridiculous plot developments. For some reason for me these two characters rang more true than others; the entire staff of the hotel, for instance, is 100% cardboard. (One of them tells lies for no more good reason than to delay a piece of information for a couple of chapters, which is annoying.) The book is structured well, such as it is. Story hook, Act I is competently handled where the principals are accumulated at the hotel; Act II is kept moving more briskly than some (like Ngaio Marsh) where the regrettable sag as dozens of people are interviewed is balanced by different viewpoints and geographical motion. And again, if you have to shovel out three chapters of blow-off as the second half of Act III, that’s hard to manage.  Given the enormous amount of bumph that she has to get across, it’s organized well and presented with reasonable clarity.  I’m not saying that it’s enjoyable to read, or even very interesting, but when I undertook my usual process of trying to follow the path of the crimes in chronological order, step by step, I found it clear.

While I was working on this piece, I had a vision of an editor at Hannah’s publishing house.  This person has perhaps not an enormous amount of knowledge about mysteries in general and Agatha Christie in particular, but is able to keep track of the guns on the wall in Act 1 and knows that some few people like us will actually be reading this book looking to know if the plot makes 100% sense. Now, I got the feeling that this person worked very, very hard in the line edit. I saw no typos, no formatting errors, and no shifts like the one to which I have become prone here, where Catchpool becomes Catchpole and back again. No, this has been professionally line-edited and quite beautifully so, I think. Where this person had to throw up her hands and admit defeat was in bringing this editing to the plot. I can imagine what happened if this book hit my desk. I would have read it through perhaps three times, making sure I grasped the entire structure of the plot and the motivations of the characters, and then — tried in vain to find a way to make this hang together in the way that Agatha Christie’s work did, such that the actions of the characters are created by their motivations, and these actions come together to form a plot that has inter-related elements.  (Murderers plot murders for victims who have done things deserving of murder, in simple terms.) This editor also knows that Belgian lime juice is not habitually consumed on top of scalloped potatoes, as it were, and that if you’re introducing a feature element into your dish, you’d best compose the remainder of the dish to make it stand out. And this editor could do nothing with the nonsense mess of scalloped potatoes — the weirdly recomplicated plot, based on making sense of the three-victims/one hotel paradigm — and the lime juice — Hannah’s take on Hercule Poirot. So the editor gave it a darn good line edit and passed it up the line to people who approved its publication because it will make a shitload of money, as I’m sure they would put it.

So should the 98% of casual occasional mystery readers read this book?  Oh, why not? It’s as good as anything else they’re likely to pick up at random in a bookstore, nine times out of ten. It may make them feel silly that they cannot figure out the solution to the crimes even though it seems to be expected that they will; c’est la vie.  Personally I’d use the money to take a friend out for a nice dinner; the costs are roughly equivalent. But we know our own pleasures best.

Should the 2% of of who are really well read and knowledgeable about mysteries in general and Agatha Christie in particular read this book? Not really. I suspect that one or two of my associates in the GAD blogosphere will enjoy the act of not enjoying this book, as I rather have myself. It is certainly pleasant to know that you have better taste in mysteries than 99% of the world due to your erudition. and it is occasionally pleasant to take one’s sharpest claws to a ready-made scratching post. Those are pleasures that should be beneath me but rarely are. But if you expect intelligent characterization, deft and clever plotting, and an understanding of how the best-selling fiction writer of all time worked her magic, you will definitely be disappointed.  You will find little pieces of nice writing and a few clever bits — early on, there was a piece about the meaning of a sentence where Poirot discerned a very different meaning from other listeners and it gave me false hope for the intellectual level of the remainder.

Ultimately, I think what it all boils down to is, what would this book be like with an original detective character and not Poirot?  On that basis, I think you’ll agree — ugh. This is a turgid, slow-moving book with a far too complicated plot, and a complete disconnect between what people do and why they do it.  And when it has the brand of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot attached to it — well, as Nero Wolfe would say, “Pfui.”

If you want a good mystery that’s like Agatha Christie, go find one of hers you haven’t read and read it.  And if you want to advertise that you are the kind of person who likes Agatha Christie — buy a tote bag.

Notes for the Collector:

It’s hard to say if this book will have any value in the future. The first edition has been published in immense quantities and it may end up being a situation where, at least for a year or so, it’s more difficult to get a second printing than the first.

Without specific reference to this book, I have noticed in the past that items like this that are attached to the oeuvre of a much more famous author have a way of developing value at a distance that is far greater than the investment required to obtain them. The only problem is, you have to hold them for 30 years for that investment to become worthwhile, and there are no guarantees. Strangely, I suggest that value accretes in relationship to the perceived value of the work, but in a way opposite than you might expect. For instance, if this book is the first in a series of 60 Poirot books by Sophie Hannah, then the first edition will have a relatively low value because millions of copies will remain in circulation, being traded by people who have an interest in the series. If this book is the first and only such Poirot book by Hannah because the public isn’t interested, then it will have an extremely low value for a number of years, the millions of first editions will pass from circulation, and the few remaining copies will be valuable. I have to say that this is the way it used to work, at least. Now that anyone who wants a reading copy can have an electronic one, I don’t know how that will affect the value equation.

 

 

The Case of the Seven of Calvary, by Anthony Boucher (1937)

The Case of the Seven of Calvary,  by Anthony Boucher (1937)

7calv1Author: Anthony Boucher was a very talented man who became well-known in a couple of different competencies. He was a mystery writer, of course, of both novels and short stories; he was also a popular writer of science-fiction novels and short stories. A huge annual conference for mystery fans and readers, Bouchercon, is named after him. In the 1940s, he was the principal writer not only on the Sherlock Holmes radio program but The Adventures of Ellery Queen and his own series, The Casebook of Gregory Hood. He was an esteemed editor of short-story collections, particularly of science-fiction short stories, and received a Hugo Award in 1957 and 1958 for editing Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. And perhaps in the foremost of these multiple occupations, he formed the opinions of generations of mystery readers by his power as the mystery reviewer for the New York Times.

In short, a fascinating, intelligent, and multi-talented man whose life and friendships were just as interesting as his multiple streams of work. I am happy to recommend you to a book called Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography, by Jeff Marks which as you may have gathered is a cross between a biography and a bibliography. I’ve gotten to know and like Jeff over the internet, where he shares his erudition freely, but you don’t have to take my friendly word for the book’s value; it won an Anthony Award for Best Critical Non-Fiction Work, and was a finalist for the Agatha. You can find a copy of the book here, and I think you will find it very interesting. It will also give you full bibliographic detail of Boucher’s many streams of work which, honestly, is a godsend to finally have assembled in one place. I’ll also happily refer you to my friend and fellow GAD blogger John Norris, who reviewed this book insightfully and with useful detail in his blog, Pretty Sinister, with the specific review found here. (And in fact I am indebted to him because I lifted his scan of Collier #AS97 to illustrate this review, since it was the only image available on the entire internet.)

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Anthony Boucher

Publication Data: The first edition of this novel is from Simon and Schuster (1937). It has not often been reprinted. I suspect there might be a Japanese edition, but I don’t read kanji. The copy that I used for this review is my paperback from Collier, #AS97, published in 1961; this may actually be the latest edition as such, although the novel is collected as part of a four-book omnibus in trade paper format from Zomba in 1984, which to my knowledge is the only UK edition.

Collier #AS97, shown at the top of this review, is so far away from what’s currently fashionable in terms of book design that it has a kind of normcore beauty. Ah, for the days when the book’s title in large and poorly-kerned Helvetica Bold and a crummy, hard-to-see woodcut at the bottom right was sufficient to cause it to leap off the shelf and into the buyer’s hands. (If you see it at its original cover price of 95 cents, it should leap into your hands; it will probably cost you at least $20 at an antiquarian bookstore if the proprietor knows what she’s got.) I note with particular approval that the potential reader is tantalized by the blurb telling them that this is one of those books where “the reader is given clues to solve the mystery”. Considering that this book is most attractive to highly literate and experienced mystery readers, this seems rather like alerting people at the entrance to the Kentucky Derby that they are likely to see some horses. But 1961 was apparently a more solicitous time in the marketing of paperbacks.

This mystery has recently become available on Kindle from Amazon and I’m happy to see that it’s now available for reading by a wider audience.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will discuss the solution to this murder mystery in general terms and it will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

12309174502The framing device for this novel is that Martin Lamb, a graduate student at UC Berkley in San Francisco, is out at dinner with Anthony Boucher; Boucher is writing up the story that Lamb tells him over dinner. This gets a tiny bit confusing because most of what happens in the book is that Lamb sits and tells things to a different listener in a different armchair, but eventually it becomes easier to pick out where we are. Lamb sits and tells the story of recent on-campus events to his advisor, Dr. Ashwin, an eccentric professor of Sanskrit. Lamb goes into great detail about the events of a recent evening among a group of international students on campus, while Dr. Ashwin listens from his armchair, a glass of scotch in his hand. The evening ends with the stabbing death of an elderly and apparently inoffensive Swiss humanitarian and quasi-diplomat as he is out for a stroll, and a scrap of paper is found nearby that contains what we learn is the symbol of an obscure religious sect, the Seven of Calvary. (There’s an illustration below.)

I think you’ll enjoy the way the events of this novel unfold, so I’m not going to go into an enormous amount of detail in case you haven’t yet read them;  I’ll give you the bare bones to whet your appetite. Martin Lamb is falling in love with a beautiful Hispanic fellow student, Mona Morales, and thus becomes a kind of bemused spectator at the string of events. The late Dr. Schaedel has a nephew in the graduate school, Kurt Ross, and he and a number of other young men have spent the evening drinking and talking. (This book has quite a bit of drinking and talking in it.) And many of these young men (including one Alex Bruce) have an interest in the beautiful young Cynthia Wood, at whose house Dr. Schaedel, she says, asked for directions moments before his murder.

Everyone thinks that the mysterious illustration of the Seven of Calvary means that some sort of religious fanatic is responsible for the murder of Dr. Schaedel, and while there are a number of people with strong religious beliefs, including Cynthia, whose wealthy father recently embraced a strict form of Christianity, none appears to be a fanatic attached to an obscure European sect. Paul Lennox, one of the young men who spent the evening of Dr. Schaedel’s death drinking and talking, goes on for a chapter about the history and background of Gnosticism, and Vignardism, and the history of the Seven of Calvary in the Swiss Alps and their belief in the septenity of their god.

Meanwhile, the police, whose efforts to solve the mystery are almost entirely invisible in this book that focuses upon armchair detective methods, appear to be getting nowhere; most of the principal characters find themselves involved in a university-based production of Don Juan Returns. Martin Lamb plays the murderer and Paul Lennox plays Don Juan, his victim. But during the first-night performance, something is wrong with Lennox’s performance as he is strangled on stage; he actually does die.

12663737861_4Lamb finds himself in over his head in the murder case and turns to Dr. Ashwin’s insight (and never-empty bottle of Scotch) to establish his innocence. Ashwin deciphers the mysteries from the comfort of his armchair. He gathers the group together in his rooms and explains that he had only had three remaining questions before solving the case. The first was answered by an express parcel from the head librarian at the University of Chicago that very afternoon; the second was answered that day by a discovery of Martin Lamb in a novelty and theatrical shop near the campus; and he asks the third on the spot. When he receives a surprising answer to this surprising question, he has everything he needs to solve the case, and explains everything.  In the course of his explanation, he reveals that he had started with seven questions to be answered (and had whittled them down to four before the session began. This further instance of the Seven-ness of the case gives him a way to explain everything that happened, and in great detail, just by answering those seven questions. It’s completely clear who did what and to whom, and why. At this point, Dr. Ashwin explains that there is actually an eighth question; that of the Seven of Calvary. He explains exactly where that idea entered the case and why, and there is nothing further to reveal (except a few paragraphs of “where are they now” as the framing story, wherein Martin Lamb is telling the story to Anthony Boucher, is tied off.)

Why is this book worth your time?

As I mentioned above, Anthony Boucher is of the premier rank of mystery critics and editors; he understands how mysteries are constructed and written. He only wrote a handful of novels and every single one of them is worth your time. If you are a fan of the classic puzzle mystery, you will find something to amuse and/or challenge you in every one of his novels — guaranteed.

This particular book is in fact his first published mystery novel. With many writers’ careers, it very often happens that their first novel is a kind of false start; they manage to sell a book which is their foot in the publishing door, and then after a while find their voice and begin to write the books for which they become known. Is this one of those?

7ofcalvWell, yes and no. Certainly this book is very clever and very original, and obviously written by someone with both a great knowledge of and a great love for murder mysteries. At the second paragraph, the Anthony Boucher character starts to lecture about the nature of a “Watson” to Martin Lamb, who actually plays the Watson role throughout most of this book, and the self-referential nature of having the author be a character adds a kind of bizarre Wonderland quality. Really, given that the author is a character and considering the nested “story within a story” conceit that is framed within the prologue and epilogue, this might almost pass for an early attempt at a kind of self-referential post-modernism. Just like Scream was a slasher movie about people who have seen a lot of slasher movies, this book is a mystery for people who have read a lot of mysteries. The first pages of my copy are a cast of characters with asterisks thoughtfully inserted against the names whom Boucher wishes us to know are possibly guilty; minor characters and spear-carriers are ruled out.

This is also a mystery for people who have read a lot of everything else. Only a very few authors in the mystery genre have this enticing quality, where the action frequently stops dead in its tracks for a two-page lecture on ancient Swiss religious beliefs, Sanskrit tongue-twisters, or the origins of the Don Juan mythos. (At one point Boucher inserts an asterisk to a footnote that says, in my paraphrase, “If this doesn’t interest you, skip two pages ahead; you won’t miss anything relevant to the murder.” Saucy, but useful.) I can only think of John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson as sharing this quality whereby they spray nuggets of information, relevant or irrelevant, through the pages of a mystery. (Yes, others do it too, but more sparingly; these guys are the big three.) Speaking as a reader, I find it charming and diverting but I know that some people find this kind of information dump annoying in the extreme.

The actual mystery element is a strong and predominant part of the novel’s plot, which is why I’ve been, for me, relatively uncommunicative about its details. There are only a few suspects and while it is not terribly difficult to assign responsibility for the murders, it is considerably more difficult to figure out howdunit. John Norris, in his review referred to above, makes the point that there are a couple of easy deductions available at the beginning of the mystery that may well make the incautious reader think they’re about to beat one of the great puzzle constructors, but, at about the midpoint of the book, there’s a revelation that completely recontextualizes everything that’s happened thus far and throws all those earlier deductions up in the air. (And again, I’m indebted to him for saying it first.) In other words, the author has been a couple of steps ahead of the reader the whole time and has led you down the proverbial garden path; in a way, this is a kind of Ellery Queenian “false solution then the true”. The ending, with everyone gathered for the “blow-off”, is certainly a Golden Age trope but the manner in which it’s conducted, with the kindly old professor listing off the seven crucial points and following with the unexpected eighth, is pure John Dickson Carr/Dr. Fell.

And that’s my only small quibble with this great book; it borrows here and there. One of the central puzzles is strongly suggestive of an earlier novel by S.S. Van Dine; there are elements reminiscent of Ellery Queen, Philo Vance, John Dickson Carr and Rex Stout. Another small problem is that the premise of having Dr. Ashwin sit in his armchair and have stories brought to him (the Rex Stout aspect) means that there has to be a way to introduce action into the plot or it descends, as it does here, into long chapters of storytelling by someone who isn’t guaranteed to be a reliable narrator. I note that this is the one and only adventure of Dr. Ashwin; Boucher’s subsequent creation of brash California PI Fergus O’Breen is much more suited to tell interesting stories. Let me be clear, though, this is more a meta-problem; there’s nothing at all wrong with the way that this book is constructed and written. The characterization is sufficient to the needs of the plot, the settings are obviously something of which Boucher had personal knowledge, and the language is elegant and erudite.

Really, there is a huge amount here to enjoy, especially if you like to experience an author’s growth by reading his work chronologically. If you like an unexpected spate of learning about — well, about something you didn’t know that seems interesting — then Boucher is one of a very small group of authors with a style of sufficient authority that they can just shut the plot down for a moment’s lesson, or a joke, or even a little puzzle that pays off in a later chapter. It’s a fun and charming style and it takes a great deal of obscure knowledge to bring it off. It’s not impossible to solve this mystery upon first reading, but I suggest that even an aficionado of the puzzle mystery will find it difficult. I enjoyed this book a lot and it’s part of the oeuvre of an important mystery writer and critic; I urge you to read it.

807072190Notes for the Collector:

As I’ve noted above, the first edition is from Simon and Schuster, 1937; first UK is as part of an omnibus volume published by Zomba in 1984, and first paper is from Collier, 1961. There’s an ugly Macmillan edition as part of their Cock Robin imprint, some sort of “bringing back the oldies” line from 1954 (the primarily blue cover earlier in this review). A facsimile of the jacket of the first edition is $18 and it’s the cheapest Boucher-related item in AbeBooks.

If I were going to get a reading copy, I’d be after a crisp Fine copy of Collier #AS97 for $20 to $30 or the Kindle edition; if I had just won the lottery, I’d be investing $600 to $800 in one of the three — three! — signed first editions on sale today. They may not be the prettiest editions — the $600 one has a facsimile jacket and none is what I’d call crisp — but, gee, the thought of having a copy that my favourite mystery critic of all time had held and signed, well, that would be worth every penny.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1937 novel qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “G”, “Read one academic mystery.” Very nearly every single character in this novel is either a student or a professor and the action takes place on the UC Berkley campus. I’d originally meant to read this as “a book with a number in the title”, but I have a couple of those in mind and close at hand. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Availability:

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.

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.