Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Movie: Counter-Espionage


Counter-Espionage
Based on characters created by Louis Joseph Vance
1942


Mr. Lanyard, this is no time for persiflage. (Jamison)

Given that spy stories have never really been a strong interest of mine it's probably not surprising that this installment of The Lone Wolf series didn't reach out and grab me. And yes it is a Lone Wolf movie, one of the few out of the twenty or so produced that doesn’t include the words Lone Wolf in the title. If it were me I'd have gone with something more Lone Wolf-ish and skipped the uninspiring Counter-Espionage, but what do I know.

This installment finds The Lone Wolf (Michael Lanyard) and his valet Jamison in London during World War II. Early on we see Lanyard cracking a safe and it appears that he might be reverting to his old thieving ways. Apparently some nefarious Nazi spy types are in town and they're trying to get their evil mitts on the plans for a beam detector or some such havoc-wreaking gadget. It looks like Lanyard just might be the guy to help them out. Or perhaps not.

The tone throughout is surprisingly light, given that we're in London during a time when air raids were a common part of daily life. Lanyard's old nemeses, Detective Dickens and Inspector Crane are on hand, rather improbably, a result of some flimsy pretext manufactured for said purpose, and of course they are convinced that he's gone back over to the dark side.

About the only other thing worth noting about this one is that at one point Jamison (whose name flip-flops from Jameson to Jamison in various Lone Wolf movies) kills time by going to see a movie called Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring. Which I'd have rather watched than this one, quite honestly. That's not to say that there was anything wrong with Counter-Espionage. It just wasn't my cup of tea.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Stuart Palmer on the Big Screen


I still haven't read any of Stuart Palmer's fiction, aside from one short story, but I have Murder on the Blackboard on the To Be Read pile. In the meantime I'm spreading the gospel of Hildegarde Withers, based on my viewings of the filmed adaptations that came out in the Thirties. I recently wrote an article on the topic for Criminal Element. It's called The Schoolmarm and the Grouch: Stuart Palmer on the Big Screen. You can read my reviews of the Withers movies here.

Let’s have a big round of applause for Turner Classic Movies. Nowadays there are any number of ways to access the classic comic mystery movies that seemed to flourish in the thirties and forties but there’s probably no easier way than to point your recording device of choice to TCM and press record. I’ve been catching up on a number of such films this way and as of this writing a Thin Man marathon is only about a week away.

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Not Quite Dead Enough, by Rex Stout


Not Quite Dead Enough
By Rex Stout
1944


I might have known something like this would happen if I left him to manage himself. It is not only bad, it may be helpless. The fathead. The big fat goop. (Archie Goodwin)

The standard for most Nero Wolfe books is that they're either novel length or collections of three novellas. There are only two novellas in this one, as was the case with Black Orchids and probably at least one other title that's not springing to mind right now. These stories date from World War II and find Archie in uniform, as Major Goodwin, and Wolfe making an attempt to do his part for the war effort. As I've mentioned before, I don't see congenital smartass Archie Goodwin as the type to fit into the military so well, but if you can suspend belief on that point these stories are quite entertaining otherwise.

Not Quite Dead Enough
The military wants Nero Wolfe's brain. Well, sort of. They want him to use his smarts for something or other but Wolfe has got it into his head that he wants to be a foot soldier and actively participate in the killing of Germans. Along with Fritz, he is undergoing a rather severe (for Wolfe) training regimen. Major Goodwin goes home to try to talk some sense into his former boss and what do you know, he gets mixed up in a murder. Which he uses as a tool, in a manner of speaking, to get Wolfe back to doing what he does best.

I'd have to say I liked this as well or better than any Wolfe story I've read lately. The plotting of the crime is nothing astounding, as is often the case, but everything else about it is classic Wolfe. Everything else including Archie relentlessly goading Wolfe and Cramer and Wolfe having at it like cats and dog, just to name a few things. Well worth the price of admission, just for this story alone.

The Booby Trap
Perhaps it's not up to the standard of the foregoing, but this one's not so shabby either. Wolfe has agreed to use his brain for the advancement of his (adopted) country's interests and after an unfortunate incident with a hand grenade he's forced to utilize it to the fullest extent. And while Wolfe's never really been a blushing bride when it comes to dealing with criminal types his method for dealing with the bad egg in this story in another league altogether.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why Shoot a Butler?, by Georgette Heyer



Why Shoot a Butler?
By Georgette Heyer
1933


Shall we be murdered, Frank? I thought these things didn't happen.

I have to admit that I was very reluctant to try a Georgette Heyer novel, even after I realized that she'd written a number of mysteries that seem to be rather well-respected. My only prior experience with Heyer are her romance novels, which were quite popular with my mother and grandmother and which I wouldn't have touched with the proverbial ten-foot pole.

It appears that Heyer wrote about a dozen crime novels in all. This is the second of them. As it opens barrister Frank Amberley is on his way to the family mansion when he comes across the butler from a nearby mansion, shot dead in a car and with a young woman standing in the road nearby. Well, the plot thickens, as they invariably do, and a few more stiffs pile up along the way. Amberley, a somewhat arrogant and not so likeable sort, works more or less in concert with the local police, though he obviously feels that he's in another league altogether.

Of course, it's all sorted out in end, but unless I missed some key points along the way, I'd say that this one is insufficiently clued to let even the most perceptive reader in on the secrets that are eventually revealed. Not that I'm the most perceptive reader and in fact I'm probably down at the other end of the scale when it comes to picking up on subtle details and whatnot.

My other quibble with this one, and it's something I've harped on before, is that it's just too long. While there are undoubtedly mystery novels that need almost 300 pages to adequately tell their story this is not one of them. It could probably have benefited from a judicious editor hacking loose a hundred pages or so.

All in all not such a bad experience as the foregoing might have suggested, but I probably won't be seeking out any more Heyer books in the near future.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Movie: Another Thin Man



Another Thin Man
From a story by Dashiell Hammett
1939


He says his name is Charles, but he looks to me like a pool parlor dude.

Say what you want about Nick and Nora but you sure can't say they don't get around. After doing time on the East and West coasts in the first two installments they're headed back east again for Another Thin Man. This time around, in addition to having lovable pup Asta in tow, they've also got one Nick Charles Jr. along for the ride.

This installment finds the Charles entourage called to the home of a wealthy family friend who is upset because he feels that someone is going to kill him. Well, guess what? From here on out it's the usual Thin Man formula of shenanigans mixed with sleuthing until most or all of the concerned parties are gathered together at the end for the great reveal.

The hard partying of the first two installments seems to have abated perhaps just a bit, but after all the Nick and Nora are parents now. And there's a first birthday party for Nick Jr. that's so over the top and ridiculous that it makes all the cutesy-poo kiddie stuff easier to bear. Look for a walk-on part from Shemp Howard (who also turned up in a Lone Wolf movies I watched recently) as a parent of one of these young partiers.

While the consensus among most who have an opinion seems to be that the first or second of the Thin Man movies are the best I think I liked this one just a little more than the others. I can't quite put a finger on why. There's just something about it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Murder in Pastiche, by Marion Mainwaring


Murder in Pastiche:
or Nine Detectives All at Sea
By Marion Mainwaring
1954


It is difficult to solve a case without a thorough knowledge of the classics and of modern European literature. (Sir Jon. Nappleby)

If you're going to read a book that contains the word "pastiche" in the title it's probably a good idea to put your critical faculties on the back burner and just go along for the ride. Especially if the book is one that gathers nine of mystery fiction's great detectives on an ocean liner and has them solve a murder.

Marion Mainwaring is apparently best known as an Edith Wharton scholar who completed one of that author's unfinished novels. She wrote one other mystery in the Fifties (Murder at Midyears), which seems to be the extent of her contribution to the genre.

Murder in Pastiche is probably a perfectly readable novel even if you've never had any experience with the detectives being parodied, but it's obviously going to be much more enjoyable if you have. There were a few detectives I don't know as well as I'd like so I'd consider myself to be somewhere between those two extremes.

The nine detectives who ended up on the same ship (quite coincidentally, of course) are Trajan Beare, Spike Bludgeon, Mallory King, Sir Jon. Nappleby, Jerry Pason, M. Atlas Poireau, Lord Simon Quinsey, Miss Fan Sliver, and Broderick Tourneur. If you know the authors being parodied then it's probably not much of a stretch to figure out who is who.

Not long after setting out for England, the comparative peace onboard ship is shattered by the murder of a well-known and rather unlikeable gossip columnist. From here on out the gang of detectives tackle the case in round-robin fashion, a chapter at a time. It sounds like a haphazard way to conduct a mystery novel, but Mainwaring makes a pretty good go of it. As for the plot, it's serviceable enough and the solution to and motivation for the crime are actually quite fitting, given the type of book under consideration.

My only minor quibbles here are that Spike Bludgeon (Mike Hammer) didn't really fit in with the rest of the bunch and that there wasn't more of Trajan Beare (Nero Wolfe) and sidekick Ernie Woodbin (Archie Goodwin). But I'm sure many other readers have made the same complaint about their own personal favorite of the nine detectives.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Shorts: Withers, Jolnes & Gubb


My main reason for joining the ranks of Kindle owners was so that I could read moldy oldie fiction archived at sites like Project Gutenberg, Gaslight and so on. After firing up the Fire I navigated there forthwith and downloaded a few stories. Since I've been meaning to read Stuart Palmer for a while I also grabbed a short story from the Kindle store (and have since added a paperback copy of Murder on the Blackboard to the TBR stack).

The Riddle of the Blue Blood Murders
By Stuart Palmer
1934


I've watched a number of movies that featured Palmer's schoolteacher detective Hildegarde Withers but this is the first time I've read any of the fiction Palmer wrote about her. This one's a brief story that concerns a rash of dog poisonings, which leads Miss Withers to go undercover at a prominent dog show. More dogs are bumped off before it's all said and done and so is a human type person. Not bad, although the limited number of suspects made it fairly easy to sort out who done it.

Philo Gubb's Greatest Case
By Ellis Parker Butler
1915


It is not at all usual for a young husband to leave home for several days and then in cold blood sew himself in a sack and jump into the river.

Philo Gubb is an Iowa-based paper hanger and detective. Butler first started writing about this popular character in 1913 and continued for two decades. As the quotation listed above suggests Gubb is trying to solve a murder in which a man is found sewn into a sack at the bottom of a river. He is dead, as you might have guessed. This is the first of the Gubb stories I've read thus far but I'm guessing that they all take a fairly comic tone, with Philo being a bit of a bumbler who eventually manages to work things out.

The Adventures of Shamrock Jolnes
By O. Henry
1911


I haven't read too many short Holmes parodies but the ones I have read seem to like to make sport of the great detective's fabulous powers of deduction. Which is about all this short tidbit from O. Henry does. It's amusing enough but not so much that I'd read another Jolnes story, if there are any.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Shorts: The Parenticide Club, by Ambrose Bierce


The Parenticide Club
by Ambrose Bierce
1911


Altogether, I cannot help thinking that in point of artistic atrocity my murder of Uncle William has seldom been excelled.

Given that this is a site that claims to focus primarily on traditional mysteries I'm going just a bit off-topic with this post. But even though they don't contain much in the way of traditional whodunit type action, there's plenty of crime to spare in the four stories that make up The Parenticide Club, not to mention liberal doses of dark humor of the blackest variety.

Perhaps the greatest mystery about Ambrose Bierce is what the hell happened to him. To most of those who know anything about him these days Bierce is remembered for three things - his acerbic The Devil's Dictionary; a short story called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, which was made into a short film that aired on The Twilight Zone; and for the mystery surrounding his disappearance in Mexico, in 1913.

As nearly as I can tell The Parenticide Club is one of Bierce's lesser-known works and dates from 1911, not long before he dropped off the face of the Earth. It first appeared in a volume of his collected works, along with a selection of "Neglible Tales" and more. Because it's in the public domain you can read it nowadays at Project Gutenberg and half a thousand other places around the Web.

My Favorite Murder
A man who's been on trial for seven years for killing his mother fondly recounts to the court the circumstances of an earlier crime, the one referenced in the title of the story.

An Imperfect Conflagration
A father/son team of burglars disagree over how to divide the spoils of one of their latest jobs, specifically a music box capable of breaking the Ten Commandments, among other things. The situation escalates wildly from this point, winding up with the situation described in the title.

The Hypnotist
In which the author's experiments with hypnotism ultimately lead him to an act of...well, take a guess.

Oil of Dog
I'd like to be able to tell you that no dogs were harmed in the making of this short story (my favorite of the bunch), but it's not true. There's quite a lot of harm going down here - against canines and otherwise. This is also the story out of this gang of four that's most likely to offend. But if you're a fan of really, really, black humor it's also the most likely to amuse.

For more on Bierce, here's a site that's worth taking a look at.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

James Anderson’s Country House Mysteries



My mission to spread the gospel of James Anderson continues. I've reviewed each of his three country house mysteries at this site. You can access those reviews here.

More recently I wrote an article that appeared at the Criminal Element blog, titled Murder Among the Gentry: James Anderson’s Country House Mysteries. You can read that article here. If none of that convinces you to read Anderson's books I don't know what else I can do.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Last Illusion, by Rhys Bowen



The Last Illusion
By Rhys Bowen
2011


My quest to read mysteries which feature Harry Houdini as a character had to be modified somewhat when I realized just how many of these there actually were. The Last Illusion was the third one I've read. I have another in the on-deck circle and one I'm trying to find a copy of. After that, given the sudden influx of items into my To Be Read pile, I think I'll be throwing in the towel for now.

Rhys Bowen has written ten volumes of the series featuring Molly Murphy, a female detective who migrated from Ireland to New York City around the turn of the twentieth century. As the book opens she's at the theater with her police inspector fiancé when a trick goes wrong and a magician's assistant is critically injured. Also on the bill that night, Harry Houdini, whose wife Bess approaches Molly to hire her to protect Houdini.

A few more suspicious incidents take place at the theater and then the plot takes something of a left turn. In the meantime Houdini has disappeared on stage in the midst of a trick, leaving a corpse in his wake. Which is about all I can say without revealing too much, except to say that Bowen brings things to a reasonably satisfying conclusion. And while I've expressed my dissatisfaction with romantic subplots before, the one presented here was kind of interesting, as it examines Molly's fiancé's dissatisfaction with having a wife who's employed as a private detective and the tensions that creates.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Movie: After the Thin Man



After the Thin Man
Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett
1936


Come on, let's get something to eat. I'm thirsty. (Nick Charles)

What comes after The Thin Man? In the chronology of the Thin Man movies that would be After the Thin Man, of course, the first of the follow-ups. For those of us who bemoan the rampant sequel-mania afoot in Hollywood today (not to mention the perhaps even more rampant remake-mania) let's consider that way back in the Thirties and Forties there were a total of five sequels to The Thin Man before it was all said and done.

After the Thin Man gets underway - dare I say it - immediately after the events of The Thin Man, with Nick and Nora (and Asta) on a train heading back home to California. When they arrive at their house they find a raucous New Year's Eve party being given in their honor, though none of the guests seem to notice that they've returned.

From there it's on to Nora's ancestral home at the behest of a crabby old aunt and a posse of stuffy, snooty old relatives. Turns out that Nora's brother-in-law has disappeared and it's hoped that Nick can look into the matter without drawing any undue attention or scandal to the family. Well, the brother-in-law is located before long and not long after that he's knocked off. A few more murders follow, along with a bunch of legwork, mostly on the part of Nick and the police. There's a summoning of the suspects at the end of it all and if you were paying attention you probably wouldn't have been too surprised at who done it.

If you liked The Thin Man chances are you'll like this one, though one could make the argument that it pales just a bit next to the original. Apparently Asta, the Charles' dog was quite a hit in the first installment and so there's a good bit of pooch-related subplot here that does nothing to advance the story. But it's all in good fun, which is the whole point of this kind of movie in the first place and it even features an early role by Jimmy Stewart.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On the Origins of the Term Cozy Mystery


I've never been very fond of the term cozy, as used to refer to a style of mystery fiction. I could go on at length as to my reasons, but Patrick from At the Scene of the Crime did exactly that a while back and I don't have much to add to what he had to say on the topic.

I did start wondering how and when this term originated and how it came to relate to a particular subgenre of mystery fiction. So I decided to do some investigating. I'll say at the outset that this is not an exhaustively researched article and it's not intended to be the last word on the topic. Rather it's just a few thoughts on the matter using some resources that I had immediately at hand.

When I searched for the term "cozy mystery" and several variations thereof in the Google News archive the oldest reference I ran across was a New York Times article from 1992. It's called Murder Least Foul: The Cozy, Soft-Boiled Mystery and it's a somewhat extensive look at cozies. It doesn't offer much in the way of explanations for the origin of the term other than to suggest that the attributes for a cozy mystery had been spelled out by the Malice Domestic group by the time of their first convention in 1989. At their web site nowadays Malice Domestic seems to prefer the term "traditional mystery" to describe this type of work.

Going back about a decade and a half earlier to Dilys Winn's Murder Ink: The Mystery Reader's Companion (1977) you'll find several references to the cozy, with such writers as Edmund Crispin, Margaret Yorke and Michael Innes being numbered among those who write them. Because I didn't actually have access to this volume in its entirety as I was writing this piece that's about as much as I can say about that for now.

Other early references to cozy mystery include a reference to "a nice, cozy mystery story" in a 1963 edition of the New Yorker magazine. Again, without full access to this particular issue I have no context for the reference and can't even be sure what story was being discussed. Going back quite a bit further, almost a century, as a matter of fact, you'll find a character in a 1868 novel making a reference to "an air of cozy mystery." Which doesn’t seem to have much to do with cozy mystery, given that the book, The Dear Girl, by Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald, is apparently a work of mainstream fiction.

Regardless of how you feel about the term cozy or the subgenre itself, you might find this dissertation by Katherine Hansen Clark of some interest. It's called What Is a Cozy? and it takes a close look at the history of the subgenre, its readership and more. Clark states that the first usage of the term in its current context was in a 1958 article in the London Observer but doesn't go any further into the history of the term itself. It's an interesting work nonetheless and worth taking a look at.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Mysteries of Mysterious Bookstores


What's with all of the mystery fiction that takes place in mystery bookstores? I recently took a look of some of these works in a post I wrote for Crimimal Element.

Readers of mystery fiction may or may not be the most avid fans of their particular genre but they’ve got to be high on the list. Which might go a long way toward explaining why so much mystery fiction takes place in and around bookstores, and particularly mystery bookstores.

It would take someone much better versed in the history of mystery to cite the earliest instances of this sort of thing, but even I can go back at least a quarter of a century or so to...


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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Movie: Private Detective



Private Detective
From a story by Kay Krausse
1939


Jane Wyman steals the show here as Jinx Winslow, a private detective who takes crap from no one, including a homicide detective who also happens to be her fiancée. Though they're working on the same case Jinx does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to solving it. She also does a pretty decent job of scrambling down fire escapes and clambering on dizzying window ledges in high heels.

As for the case itself, it's really no great shakes. When a wealthy man is bumped off during a nasty and very high profile custody case the circle of suspects is a small one and it's not too hard to sort out who done the bumping rather early on. As for the name of the movie itself, is that really the best they could come up with?

But it's an entertaining little piece even so and at just under an hour it certainly doesn't overstay its welcome.

Friday, January 6, 2012

How To Be A Detective

My most recent review was of J.J. Murphy's You Might As Well Die, in which humorist Robert Benchley teams up with writer Dorothy Parker to investigate a murder.

Here's a short Benchley made in 1936 in which he reveals everything you'd need to know (or perhaps not) about How To Be A Detective. If that's not enough career advice for you, scroll down to a 1952 cartoon in which Goofy discourses on the same topic.




Thursday, January 5, 2012

You Might As Well Die, by J.J. Murphy


You Might As Well Die
By J.J. Murphy
2011


After reading The Dime Museum Murders, by Daniel Stashower, I decided to see if there were other mysteries in which Harry Houdini played a prominent role. Lo and behold, it turns out that there are quite a few, including J.J. Murphy's You Might As Well Die.

Murphy's gimmick is historical mysteries featuring fictionalized characters from the famed Algonquin Round Table, a literary salon, of sorts, that was active in the Twenties. Most notable among the literary luminaries pressed into crime-solving, the writer Dorothy Parker, who in real life was probably as famous for her acerbic wit as her literary output.

You Might As Well Die looks to be the third book in this series. This time around Parker and humorist Robert Benchley team up to look into the death of a Roundtable second-stringer and struggling artist named Ernie MacGuffin. Though not a couple (Benchley is married) they do this in a style that recalls Nick and Nora Charles, tempering their amateur detecting with plenty of Prohibition-era alcohol. Houdini is drawn into the story when the pair draft him to determine what's really going on at a séance, something that the real Houdini, an active debunker of false spiritualists, was keen on doing whenever possible.

At times the proceedings start to resemble an old-time screwball comedy, with a number of scenes that skirt the boundaries of madcap and such background details as Harpo Marx and Roundtable regular Alexander Woolcott roaming Manhattan, playing a rather offbeat game of croquet. Apparently both men were actually avid croquet players in real life, though this rogue game is presumably a bit of dramatic license. More about Marx, Woolcott and croquet here, if you care.

As for the mystery that lies at the heart of this book, well, let's just say that it wasn't much to write home about. That's not really a knock, since I'd say the same about many of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, which are among my favorites. It wouldn't quite be accurate to call MacGuffin a McGuffin in the Hitchcockian sense of the word, but if you've read more than a handful of mysteries you'll probably see everything that's coming long before it actually does. It ain't John Dickson Carr, to be sure, but it's a good time nonetheless.

Image: roundtablemysteries.com

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Movie: The Thin Man



The Thin Man
From a story by Dashiell Hammett
1934


If you let anything happen to him you'll never wag that tail again. (Nora Charles, to Asta)

My plan was to read The Thin Man prior to watching the movie, but you know that old saying about intentions and the road to hell. In any event, I think the movie stands on its own quite nicely and I'm sure I'll get around to the book one of these days.

My main problem with The Thin Man, and it may have had something to do with the fact that I didn't watch it in one sitting, was that I kind of lost track of who was who, not to mention the general thread of the plot. Which is not really a new thing for me. I'm often flummoxed by intricate plots and that may be why I'm such a fan of the Nero Wolfe books, which seem to me to be more about character interaction than complex puzzles. Apparently I'm not the only one who felt this way about The Thin Man. As Roger Ebert put it, in a review from a few years back, "the plot is so preposterous that no reasonable viewer can follow it, and the movie makes little effort to require that it be followed."

Which is not to say that I didn't like the movie because I actually liked it quite a bit. I've been watching a bunch of the so-called screwball mystery movies of the Thirties and Forties lately and while I should probably have started with The Thin Man series and worked my way to the others let's just say it's better late than never.

Given that I floundered a bit on the plot and that the movie is so well-known to start with I'll skip over all of that and just give a few general impressions. First, that William Powell was just about perfect for the role of Nick Charles, as was the case with Edna May Oliver in the role of Hildegarde Withers and Warren Williams, who starred as The Lone Wolf/Michael Lanyard. Second, that the Porky's movies of the Eighties had nothing on this one when it came to raucous partying and staggering amounts of alcohol consumption.

There were six installments of The Thin Man series and TCM was kind enough to show them all recently. Unfortunately, my DVR maxed out and I've only got installments two and three lined up. As for the others, I'm sure I'll catch them somewhere down the road.

For more background on The Thin Man, here are a few articles from TCM.