Sunday, February 26, 2012
The Bones of Avalon
By Phil Rickman
As a general rule historical mysteries set in times prior to the Victorian era haven't held much appeal for me, at least not thus far. But I'm kind of a sucker for anything with an Arthurian theme (and I'd give a special nod to Jack Whyte's nine-volume The Camulod Chronicles) so I decided to branch out a bit with Phil Rickman's The Bones of Avalon.
While I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that the bones of the title, being those of King Arthur, were a McGuffin, the author could probably have substituted something else entirely without affecting the story all that much. Which is not to say that it was a bad story. Not at all. I liked it quite a bit, with perhaps one relatively minor reservation.
That would be the personality of the main character, Dr. John Dee, a fictionalized recreation of a real-life character who was apparently attached to the court of Queen Elizabeth I. The Dee of the book could be described as what passed for a scientist in his day though he could also be described as a sorcerer, conjurer, astrologer, or what have you, depending on who's doing the describing.
Which, quite frankly, is not a good thing to be in England in 1560. This is a place that's fraught with a great deal of political and religious turmoil, which in Dee's case, has resulted in him nearly being burnt at the stake. This goes a long way toward describing his personality, which (understandably, I guess) is suspicious and very fearful, almost bordering on paranoia. Which didn't make him a particularly sympathetic or likable character in my book but the strengths of the story helped to make up for that.
Which story concerns a small expedition to Glastonbury, a key site in Arthurian legend, mounted in hopes of recovering the bones of Arthur. Dee is part of the expedition, but not long after arriving another member of the party is found murdered in a way that suggests a ritual murder. Dee is smitten by a local healer and undertakes a mystic vision, of sorts, with her assistance. But as the hue and cry goes up to find the murderer circumstances demand that he toughen up and take certain matters into his own hands in a way he's not accustomed to doing.
While I found myself grumbling about the languid pace of this one early on, the author kicked things up considerably later on, with the result that the last half to one-third of the book zips right by. I especially liked he how used a plot point that will seem relevant to modern-day readers, but it wouldn't be fair to go into any more detail about what exactly it was.
While I liked Rickman's book it hasn't inspired me to seek out any more historical mysteries just yet. However, it did motivate me to finally take a crack at Mary Stewart's five-volume retelling of the Arthurian legend.
Saturday, February 25, 2012
Not so long ago I joined the rapidly swelling ranks of the world's Kindle owners. One of my first actions was to overload (okay, not quite) the thing with a towering heap of old public domain mysteries. Not long after that I wrote a slight paean in praise of the Kindle, which appeared recently at Criminal Element.
I’m not particularly fond of books. Well, maybe I should elaborate on that statement a bit. I like to read books. Always have. I can appreciate the aesthetic value of certain types of books, which in my case would mostly be old, slightly ratty and rather musty smelling paperbacks. But as much as I like to read books I don’t really feel the need to own them, at least not anymore. Maybe that’s the end result of a period when I had the pleasure of moving a dozen times in as many years, lugging books around the country. But I digress.
(Just before I hit "publish" on this post I ran across this post by Puzzle Doctor, who's also a recent Kindle convert.)
Sunday, February 19, 2012
by Cyril Hare
I wasn't familiar with Cyril Hare (A.A. Gordon Clark) prior to reading this book. According to one source he wrote about ten mysteries in all, most of them novels, between the years 1937 and 1957. This is the third one and features one of his regulars, police Inspector Mallett.
I've been searching for the right word to describe Hare's style and I can't seem to come up with anything. Workmanlike and mundane both came to mind, but since they have something of a negative connotation that's not quite what I'm looking for. What I'm driving at here is that there's nothing flashy or exotic about this book, just a good solid mystery in which the plot unravels in a methodical fashion and leads to a satisfying conclusion - with a fairly decent twist.
Things get underway when the vacationing Mallett strikes up a conversation with an elderly hiker in the hotel where they're staying. Said hiker is found dead of an apparent overdose the next morning but Mallett tries to stay clear of the proceedings for the most part, since he's not really there on business.
At this point the deceased man's family mount their own investigation in hopes of proving that his death was murder rather than suicide. This is critical since a clause in the insurance policy will dramatically affect the size of the payout depending on which is the case. The man's son and daughter spearhead the amateur investigation, aided by the daughter's fiancée.
All of which proceeds quite nicely until we near the end, at which point Mallett decides it's time to stick his nose in again and that's really all I'm going to say about this one. While the twist might not seem so spectacular, depending on your level familiarity with this sort of thing, it was probably reasonably fresh some seventy years ago and worked pretty well for me even to this day.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
I've read a number of books lately that happened to be set on ocean liners, cruise ships and whatnot, including titles by Carter Dickson, Marion Mainwaring and Boris Akunin. Then I finally had a chance to see the 1978 adaptation of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile. Which led me to start wondering what other such works were out there and that led to an article that recently appeared at Criminal Element, titled Dead on the Water: Shipboard Murder Mysteries.
It’s probably not surprising that so much mystery fiction is set on cruise ships and similar vessels. This form of travel used to be the only game in town for going great distances across large bodies of water. Nowadays, people are less likely to travel this way out of necessity, but there’s a thriving cruise industry that depends on pleasure seekers taking to the water. For mystery authors, fiction set on the water has the bonus of allowing them to isolate a group of victims/suspects from the rest of the world. Given how much of this fiction exists, it would be foolish to try to look at it all in one short article, so I will stick with some highlights.
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Here's a Sherlockian curiosity that apparently aired around the turn of this century. Animation is not really my cup of tea so I probably won't seek it out. But I have to admit that it's got a maddeningly catchy theme song.
Saturday, February 11, 2012
The Hound of the Baskervilles
From a story by
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I have to confess that I've never read The Hound of the Baskervilles, though I recently took steps to rectify the matter and am finally working my way through it. Some years back, for whatever reason, I happened to watch a number of the many cinematic adaptations of the story and I thought I'd revisit this one.
Which is a pretty jim-dandy piece of work, if you ask me. It stars Richard Roxburgh as Holmes and Ian Hart as Watson and it’s the latter who really steals the show here. Even though I haven't read the story yet I know enough about it to know that it's largely Watson's show. In this adaptation I'd venture to say that this is even more so, not only in those times when Holmes is nowhere to be found but also when he's on screen. Hart dominates the proceedings so thoroughly that even when Holmes is there it seems that he's relegated almost to the role of a minor character.
Not to belabor the point, but Hart's Watson is also a very forceful and rather brooding sort of chap. He's a man of action and not as inclined to take his cues from the mighty Holmes as other Watsons we've seen on the big or small screen. There are even several scenes in which, quite simply, he rips the great detective a new one. This, for a variety of infractions, but most notably for keeping him in the dark about the facts of the case at hand.
Aside from the main characters there's plenty more to like about this one, including the dark, menacing setting (the Isle of Man, which fills in quite nicely for the real Dartmoor) and cinematography. The other actors acquit themselves quite nicely, with a special nod to Richard Grant for his especially smarmy incarnation of Stapleton. The one great drawback here, though it's not really a deal-breaker, is the hound itself, a dopey-looking piece of work that looks like an animatronic version of some critter on loan from an episode of the Muppets.
It's my understanding that the production did take some liberties with Doyle's yarn, as cinematic adaptations are prone to do. Obviously I can't speak to that with any authority, but I will say that, taken as a discrete unit, this was quite an entertaining and suspenseful piece of work, even if you do know how it's going to turn out.
Trivia fans take note, Hart later portrayed none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in Finding Neverland (2004), while Grant had previously tackled Holmes in a 1992 BBC TV movie called The Other Side.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
The Unguarded Hour
From a play by Ladislas Fodor
The Deardens - Lady Helen and Sir Alan - are throwing a party one night for a host of well-heeled guests when, unbeknownst to them, someone crashes the party. He makes his way to Lady Dearden and proceeds to blackmail her over some past indiscretions her husband was involved in. Given that Sir Alan is about to move up in the world from his position as a successful barrister to attorney general, Lady Dearden figures it's best to capitulate.
However she later finds that a man is being tried for killing his wife and that something she saw on the day when she dropped off the blackmail money could clear his name. But she can't come forward without sullying her husband's name. Coincidentally (perhaps a bit too much), her husband is the prosecuting attorney trying this case.
And it gets even more muddled from there, with one thing leading to another and Sir Alan himself being charged with another crime. Which is about all I can give away about this one, except to say that, given the small circle of characters, it's no great shakes to figure out who the real culprit is.
But it's a somewhat entertaining piece of work nonetheless, with strong performances from Loretta Young and Franchot Tone as the Deardens and some mild comic relief from Roland Young, as their wisecracking friend, Bunny. No great shakes as a whodunit but worth a look even so. Trivia fans should note that Henry Daniell, who plays the bad egg here, later went on to play Moriarty in The Woman in Green, one of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films. Director Sam Wood also did the honors for the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
It started innocuously enough. I read one mystery that featured Harry Houdini and then one thing led to another. One of those things is this article I recently wrote for Criminal Element, titled Magical Mystery Tour: Houdini’s Appearances. It's a chronicle of Houdini's many appearances in mystery fiction, though I'm sure I probably missed a few.
I never intended to make an informal survey of the many appearances of Harry Houdini in the annals of mystery fiction. It just sort of happened that way. Quite frankly, until I began investigating the matter I didn’t realize that he was a character so beloved by mystery writers—and writers in general, even celebrity authors such as William Shatner, who “co-wrote” a book in which Houdini and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle team up to determine if there really is life after death.
Sunday, February 5, 2012
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes
(loosely) based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
My given name is Robert Sherlock Holmes. But who would ever remember a detective called Robert Holmes? (Robert Sherlock Holmes, aka Sherlock Holmes)
I honestly don't know where to start. I guess I'll start with the term mockbuster. I've been aware of this concept for quite some time but I never knew that it actually had a name. A mockbuster (sez Wikipedia) is "a film created with the apparent intention of piggy-backing on the publicity of a major film with a similar title or theme and are often made with a low budget."
So if it seems like an incredible coincidence that there was a movie named Sherlock Holmes released at around the same time as the Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr., rest assured that it’s not. Technically, this one's actually called Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, though the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle part appears in very tiny print in most of the packaging and promo materials I've seen.
The screenwriter for this production, it should be noted, has had a hand in such other cinematic treats as 2-Headed Shark Attack, Nazis at the Center of the Earth, Mega Python vs. Gatoroid and Gacy House, to name a few of the more memorable titles. So if you go into (Robert) Sherlock Holmes expecting great art, you may be in for a disappointment. Come to think of it, if you're expecting even mediocre art you're likely to be let down quite a bit.
If, on the other hand, you're ready to spend 90-some minutes perched on the edge of your seat, heedless of the fact that you're spilling popcorn all over the place, whilst you contemplate a Z-grade entertainment in which Bob Holmes, Dr. Watson and Inspector Lestrade pursue (and are pursued by, it must be said) CGI dinosaurs lifted straight out of Jurassic Park, then you've absolutely come to the right place. Oh, and let's not forget about the CGI sea monster. Or the great clanking, steampunk-inspired, fire-breathing metal dragon that carries itself aloft merely by flapping its vast wings even though it's made of metal and must weigh at least twenty tons. Or the great, not-clanking, but also steampunk-inspired hot air balloon that inexplicably sports a pair of helicopter-type rotors.
I don't know that there's much more to say than that. I could comment on the fact that Ben Syder (not a typo) is quite possibly the worst Bobby Holmes of all time, portraying him more or less as some sort of soft-spoken faux Byronic dandy. But since it appears to be his first (only?) feature role (and he was probably distraught over losing a consonant) that would hardly be sporting, so I won't. Besides, he did say "elementary" and "the game's afoot" at least once and what more do you really need from a cinematic portrayal of Roberto Holmes?
I'm also not going to mention that Gareth David-Lloyd doesn't fare much better as Watson, even though he's apparently had actual acting experience in a TV series called Torchwood, which I've never seen. Or that when the light is right Lestrade (William Huw) looks a little bit like Larry the Cable Guy. Nor will I discuss the story or plot or whatever you want to call it. I omit this latter simply because there didn't appear to be much in the way of a story or plot, at least not that I was able to discern. Though I will admit that things kept happening pretty much from the beginning to the end of the film.
And I'm certainly not going to mention Thorpe Holmes (yes, really), Bobbo's long-lost brother and the sneering, maniacal villain of the piece, who's played by a guy who previously played a minor character in Star Trek: Enterprise, the very last of the five Star Trek TV series, and who gets to wear a really cool golden metal suit for part of the proceedings and whose sidekick is some cold as ice goth-ish type dame who may or may not turn out to be some kind of android (I wasn't clear on this last point). I confess that I'm not real well-versed in the Sherlock Holmes canon but I'm gonna take a stab and guess that at no time does Thorpe figure in the proceedings.
I will not mention any of these things simply because when it comes to right down to it I've always had a soft spot in my heart for purveyors of certain varieties of cinematic crap. The enterprising souls who loosed this steaming heap upon the world are probably not that far removed from such crap purveyors of yesteryear as Ed Wood, William Castle, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Ray Dennis Steckler and if they can put something this unrelentingly absurd out in the world without flinching then I say more power to them. Besides, I'd be willing to bet all of my Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus trading cards that the good people responsible for (Robert) Sherlock Holmes are hardy, thick-skinned types who are quite impervious to criticism, thank you very much, and are probably too busy working on a sequel to Snakes on a Train or The Da Vinci Treasure or the 18 Year Old Virgin to give a hoot what anyone thinks.
So get outta here. I gotta run. Transmorphers: Fall of Man certainly isn't gonna watch itself, you know. After that it's on to Sunday School Musical and then I intend to seek help from a qualified mental health professional.
(As luck would have it I discovered this movie about a week after the inaugural episode of the Old School Mystery Roundtable Podcast. In which a group of us mystery bloggers gathered to discuss the topic How Much Sherlock is Too Much? Listen to the podcast here.)
Saturday, February 4, 2012
Trent's Last Case
By E.C. Bentley
If you can tell me at any time, how under the sun a man who put on all those clothes could forget to put in his teeth, you may kick me from here to the nearest lunatic asylum, and hand me over as an incipient dement. (Philip Trent)
As Edward Hoch noted in his review of Trent's Last Case, opinions on Bentley's book have been somewhat mixed, with Ellery Queen and G.K. Chesterton among those shouting hosannas to the heavens and many later reviewers not nearly so enthusiastic. I guess I'd put myself somewhere in the middle of the pack. Early on, I found myself thinking that this was one of the most readable and entertaining books I'd read for quite some time. I'm sorry to say that the center did not hold, although things did pick up again near the end.
It's kind of tricky to discourse about this one without spoiling the good stuff, but I'll give it a whirl. Artist Philip Trent is called to the mansion of a fabulously wealthy and successful businessmen, whose murder has rocked the business world, not to mention the world in general. Trent is there in his capacity as a freelance journalist but he conducts himself more like an amateur detective. During the course of his investigations he sews things up pretty neatly and moves on.
Which is where the story took a dive for this particular reader. It's probably not a spoiler to reveal that Trent falls hard for the widow of the victim, which is the part of the story that left me cold, given that he moons and mopes about like a love-struck dingbat. Fortunately, as I've already noted, things pick up considerably from here, with a couple of interesting twists that can’t really be discussed without giving away too much.
If Bentley's editor had excised that "Trent-in-love" section from the book you'd have a book that merits some pretty high praise. Even so I'd say it's a pretty decent effort. Although at no point while I was reading Trent's Last Case did it occur to me that it might be, as Wikipedia notes, "the first major sendup of that genre." I guess that's a matter of opinion. Either it's not at all or I'm just not a perceptive enough reader to have taken notice of that angle.
(This was the first of the books I committed to read for Bev Hankins' Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2012. It's also the last on the list chronologically, since I chose the Prehistory of Mystery as my theme. More about the challenge here and here is my list of books.)
Thursday, February 2, 2012
Death on the Nile
From a story by Agatha Christie
Come, Bowers, it's time to go, this place is beginning to resemble a mortuary. (Mrs. Van Schuyler)
I must have seen parts of this movie before, as some of it looks familiar, but apparently I never watched the whole thing. Too bad, since I'd rank it right up there with the best mystery flicks I've ever seen.
I'm not real well-read when it comes to Agatha Christie, having only tackled about a dozen titles thus far. I have yet to read Death on the Nile, but in this case I think that not having done so first only served to enhance the experience.
As the novel and movie are rather well-known I won't go very deeply into the plot. It's a pretty good one, as these things go. As the title suggests, most of the story takes place onboard a steamboat traveling down the Nile, with a passenger compliment that consists primarily of a bunch of well-heeled tourists - and Hercule Poirot.
It's all pretty cut and dried, with the first part of the movie demonstrating that nearly everyone on board has a bone to pick - and a reason to kill - the victim. After that killing, things also proceed fairly methodically, with M. Poirot questioning all potential suspects and a few more instances of mayhem breaking out.
Which makes it sound like a pretty mediocre affair, but it's anything but. What brings this one right up to the top of the heap is a number of things, including the execution, with Anthony Shaffer's screenplay and John Guillermin's direction coaxing every available drop of drama out of the proceedings. I especially liked the scenes in which the characters play out the hypothetical scenarios Poirot lays out for how each might have committed the crime.
Then there's the truly all-star cast, which includes Peter Ustinov as Poirot and a boatload of other luminaries, including David Niven, Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith, and many more. And though he's not a name that I recognized, I.S. Johar, as the boat's manager, pretty much manages to steal every scene he's in, with a performance that calls to mind equal parts of Jerry Lewis and Peter Sellers.
Then there is the setting. Which is Egypt - and that's the real Egypt, mind you, not some cut-rate studio backlot. Which may not have been a treat for the actors, working long days on a riverboat in intense heat, but it's an extra-special treat for the viewers. About the only thing I regret is that I wasn't watching this movie in a movie theater, on a big screen. But maybe someday.
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Shots at Sea
by Tom Lalicki
It is a gentleman's agreement, you might say, that English criminals do not carry guns, so English police do not need them either. (Inspector Tatum)
My exploration of mystery fiction that "stars" Harry Houdini continues with Shots at Sea, by Tom Lalicki. The author of Spellbinder: The Life of Harry Houdini, a biography, Lalicki later wrote the Houdini & Nate mysteries for young adults. This volume is the second in that series of three books.
The books are written from the viewpoint of Nathaniel G. Makeworthy Fuller, who becomes friends and solves crimes with the great Houdini. This time around the duo are headed to Europe on the great ocean liner Lusitania. Also on board, the former president Theodore Roosevelt, who is nearly shot by an assassin early on in the voyage.
What follows is not really a mystery in the whodunit sense, but more of a thriller/adventure story as we and the protagonists wait to see if the assassin will strike again and they do whatever they can to prevent it. While it didn't make for bad reading I'm obviously not even close to the target demographic and now that my curiosity is satisfied I won't be coming back to this series.