Sunday, September 30, 2012

Movie Review - There’s Always A Woman

There’s Always A Woman
Starring Joan Blondell and Melvyn Douglas
1938

If imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery then the people who made the Thin Man series of films must have been quite flattered by this one. There’s Always A Woman was intended to be a series of films, apparently, but only one more movie was made after this one.

Blondell and Douglas play Bill and Sally Reardon. He's a detective and she's his somewhat ditzy wife. With the detective business suffering Bill decides to throw in the towel and go back to working for the District Attorney's office. But as Sally is hanging around the old office one day she happens to hook up with one of his potential clients. The plot thickens considerably from there and the pair both end up working on a murder case from different directions, with decidedly zany results.

Or at least I'm assuming that's the way it was meant to be. But try as they might Blondell and Douglas don't manage to generate too much in the way of zaniness. I last saw Blondell in Miss Pinkerton, which I liked, and she holds up her end here for the most part, but Douglas seems too grumpy for this sort of role. Given that this is a pretty blatant Thin Man knockoff one can't help comparing him to the always witty and likable William Powell and he doesn’t measure up. I've got a few other allegedly comic mysteries starring Douglas in the queue so it will be interesting to see how he comes across in those.

I'd be willing to bet that there were a number of other Thin Man knockoffs back when, given the popularity of the series, but it would take someone more knowledgeable than I to confirm that. I can point to one example, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, which starred Powell, interestingly enough.

Check out contemporary reviews from Variety and the New York Times here and here.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Dumb Witness, by Agatha Christie

Dumb Witness
By Agatha Christie
1937

Dumb Witness comes from the same era as the last Agatha Christie book I read - Cards on the Table. In between these two she published Murder in the Mews, a story collection. I have yet to read the latter but all three feature Hercule Poirot. While I liked Dumb Witness quite a bit I liked Cards on the Table quite a bit more and have Mews on my To Be Read list.

The premise of Dumb Witness is a fairly traditional one, as old school mysteries go. A wealthy old woman dies and her surviving relatives behave as surviving relatives so often do in these situations - badly. Poirot takes this one on pretty much as a cold case, when he receives a letter from the deceased a few months after her death.

Needless to say there are some issues here that would suggest that foul play was involved and Poirot and Hastings waste no time in getting down to business. I won't say too much more about the plot and execution of this one except to note that Christie offers up a fairly significant clue that I managed to miss the significance of until sometime after I'd finished the book. But that's not particularly unusual for me and as a result I've decided not to take up crimesolving any time soon.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Father Hunt, by Rex Stout

The Father Hunt
By Rex Stout
1968

One doesn't drop in at the house on Thirty-fifth Street for the plot line. (Donald Westlake)

I wish I'd started this site before I commenced reading Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels. After going on a binge, of sorts, mostly in 2010 and 2011, I finally reached a point where I'd read all but seven titles. Rather than make a great effort to seek these out I decided to wait until I happened to stumble across them. Which happened recently with The Father Hunt, a title that I'd overlooked on my forays into the (virtual) stacks at my local library system.

I wasn't sure what to expect with this one, given that it was written near the end of Stout's career. Wolfe's creator was getting up in years by this time and only three more Wolfe novels were published before his death in 1975.

But I have to say that in my opinion Stout hadn't lost his touch. The Father Hunt might not rank with the best books of the series but it isn't so shabby either. As the title suggests, Wolfe and Archie are called upon to find the father of a girl who never knew him but he apparently sent her a large sum of money once a month. This was funneled through her mother until the mother died under suspicious circumstances.

Which is a serviceable enough plot, by Wolfe standards (even the most avid Wolfe fans would probably agree with the Westlake quote referenced above). What I found most interesting about this one was how mundane it was. Which might not sound like much of a selling point but what I mean is that it was a very nuts and bolts (and therefore probably fairly realistic) look at how a gang of detectives (Saul, Fred and Orrie are called upon to help out) crack a case with not much more than a lot of hard work that's not so far removed from drudgery and which takes them down numerous blind alleys which they have to try just on the off chance that something will turn up.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Movie Review - The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt

The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt
Based on characters
created by Louis Joseph Vance
1939

Some of the comic mysteries of the Thirties and Forties seem closer to screwball comedies with just a dab of crime and mystery content mixed in for good effect. Such is the case with The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, which is among the silliest of the installments of this series that I've seen thus far and which also marks the first appearance of Warren William in the title role.

William came to the role with some pretty decent credentials in the field of mystery cinema, having already played the role of Philo Vance (as did William Powell) and Perry Mason. The Lone Wolf got his start about a quarter of a century earlier in a series of books by Louis Joseph Vance and hit the big screen for the first time just three years later. I've only seen three of the many actors who played the role over the years but it's hard to imagine any of the others being more suited for it than William.

The plot of The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt is a fairly typical one, by Lone Wolf standards. A gang of spies want to get their hands on aircraft plans and make it look like former jewel thief, the Lone Wolf (Michael Lanyard), is the one who did it. The next time around they actually kidnap Lanyard and make him crack a safe, again framing him for the crime.

But Lanyard has a few tricks up his sleeve and before it's all said and done justice does prevail. With plenty of zany antics to lighten things up along the way. One notable omission this time around was in the character of Jameson, Lanyard's butler. He is actually here but this time out he's played by Leonard Carey, who played an incredible number of butlers and valets in his career and who was apparently Hollywood's go-to guy when it came to this kind of role.

Which is all well and good but his Jameson is really just Lanyard's butler, for the most part, unlike the next incarnation of the character, who served as much as a sidekick as a butler. That Jameson was played by Eric Blore, who took over the role and played it pretty much all the way through until the last installment, with perhaps one or two movies off. I didn't like Blore at first but I came to over time and he and William actually make quite a good pair.

Other points of interest here are Lanyard's pre-teen daughter, which was an odd twist, so much so that she doesn't appear in any of the later installments that I've seen. Also of note is the screwball comedy battle of the sexes subplot concerning Lanyard and his steady girlfriend, played (and perhaps a bit overplayed) by Ida Lupino. Much is made of a number of misunderstandings between the two, usually having to do with other women, which means that the beleaguered Mr. Lanyard is getting it from three sides at once - bad guys, police and significant other.

A pretty good installment, this one, if I do say so myself. For my other reviews of Lone Wolf movies, as well an overview I wrote for the Criminal Element blog, look here. For another perspective on the movie as well as a very in-depth look at its star, check out Cliff Aliperti's Warren William site.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cards on the Table, by Agatha Christie

Cards on the Table
By Agatha Christie
1936

Elmore Leonard once said that part of the secret to his success as an author was in leaving out the parts most readers skip. Which is a quality I've always attributed to Agatha Christie. I've only read perhaps a dozen or so of her books, but with one or two exceptions I tend to find myself blazing through them like Evelyn Wood's star pupil.

Which brings us to Cards on the Table, which I'd rank at the top of the heap of those dozen or so Christie books. The premise here is quite simple but also contrived, almost to the point of being absurd. Which didn't matter much to me since Christie turned the whole business into such a fine yarn.

Said premise finds bridge games going on in adjoining rooms in the home of a rather unlikeable party host. At one table are a foursome of detectives and law enforcement types, including one Hercule Poirot. At the other table are a quartet who will become the chief suspects in the murder of the host. Who is killed during the game while sitting by the fireplace in the same room as the suspects.

In the challenge (of sorts) to the reader that precedes the story, Christie points out that this is a mystery that will be solved by considering the psychology of the suspects, rather than the traditional system of gathering clues, recreating movements and whatnot. Scotland Yard's Superintendent Battle, who was present at the time of the murder, takes the latter route toward solving the crime. Poirot, not surprisingly, focuses more on what the suspects remembered about the bridge game, their memories regarding the layout of the room and other things that will help him understand the way they tick.

Which obviously isn't fair play, unless I missed a key point somewhere, but I guess that's what Christie was getting at in her introduction. Perhaps there was a bridge-related clue hidden somewhere in all this that would have helped me figure it out but I know nada about bridge. In fact, my eyes tended to roll back in my head during the detailed discussions of the games and the scoring, but that was my only minor quibble with what I'd otherwise consider to be an outstanding work and one that comes with my highest recommendation.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Memory of Blood, by Christopher Fowler

The Memory of Blood
By Christopher Fowler
2011

Perhaps I could just stop you there before I go mad and kill you. (John May to Arthur Bryant)

It seems like only yesterday that I read and reviewed Christopher Fowler's The Water Room. Probably because it was actually just a few days ago. That was the second of Fowler's Bryant and May series and The Memory of Blood is the ninth. No need to dwell on my seeming inability to read a series in order and I'll point out that I'm actually going back to book one, with the intention of proceeding in order through the volumes I haven't read.

In any event, The Memory of Blood shows that Fowler didn't lose any momentum between books two and nine. I'm still not quite clear on why there seem to be so many works of "traditional" mystery that deal with the theater, but here's another one. Things get underway when the wealthy owner of a London theater throws a party at his home for the cast and crew of the latest production, along with a few other invitees.

Things soon get ugly, with a particularly nasty crime that essentially falls into the impossible category. Given the rather peculiar nature of the crime, the Peculiar Crimes Unit - including the aging but not quite over the hill crime-solving duo of John May and Arthur Bryant - are called in to sort it all out. More mayhem ensues before it's all said and done but I won't go into much in the way of specifics here. Suffice to say that, just as water was the underlying theme of The Water Room, so are puppets (yes, really) the theme of this one.

It's all a great deal of fun and a refreshing change in a time when it seems that everything coming through the mystery publishing pipeline is either a "thriller," chick-lit dressed up with a few mystery trappings, or a super-specific niche series about candy store owners and whatnot.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Water Room, by Christopher Fowler

The Water Room
By Christopher Fowler 2005

This is supposed to be a sterile zone, although I've lost count of the number of times I've found your cough drops in a body bag.
(coroner Oswald Finch, to Arthur Bryant)

Perhaps one day I'll manage to read a series of books in what I'm assuming is the accepted fashion - from beginning to end. It's not going to happen with Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May series, since I've already fouled things up by starting with book two - The Water Room.

Oh, well. So be it. I don't read that many mystery series, by the way, and it's actually rather rare that I read a second book by a given author, given that there are so many authors I haven't had a chance to try. But something about The Water Room struck a chord. Already I'm almost finished with another book in the series and have started a third. That's mighty high praise in my neck of the woods.

There's a pretty decent mystery at the heart of The Water Room and a whole lot of arcane history about London and sundry other topics, if you go for that sort of thing. But the chief draw here (at least for me) is the characters. Make that "character" actually, since the star of the show is really Arthur Bryant, the elder half (by a few years) of a crime-solving duo who are well past retirement age and who have been working together for more than a half century.

With all due respect to John May, who's a fine enough character, he's eclipsed by Bryant, who is an eccentric of the first order and rather irascible, to boot. It's a bit of a stretch, I guess, but I couldn't help thinking of May as the Archie Goodwin of the pair, given that he's practical, down to earth and able to play well with others. Bryant, of course, is the sorta kinda like Nero Wolfe character.

In any event the pair are part of London's Peculiar Crimes Unit, which is essentially the Rodney Dangerfield of the city's law enforcement establishment. The book kicks off with a decidedly peculiar crime when an elderly woman is found dead sitting in a chair in her basement. Though she and her surroundings are dry, it's discovered that she's ingested and drowned on river water.

Which is just the start of the peculiarities, but I won't say too much more about the specifics of plot and execution. Fowler lays things out and ties them up pretty neatly. Although, to be quite honest, it was the interplay of the characters and those liberal doses of arcane history that really kept things moving along for me.

Image: christopherfowler.co.uk

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Archie Goodwin Meets Nero Wolfe - The Prequel

I went on my Nero Wolfe reading binge before I started this site and so there are not too many reviews here of those novels and novellas. I've actually reviewed about as many Wolfe novels by Robert Goldsborough in these pages as I have by Rex Stout.

Goldsborough is, of course, the writer who took over after Rex Stout's death and wrote a handful of Nero Wolfe novels. I'm not normally keen on the notion of someone taking over for a dead author, but on the other hand I have to admit that I liked the Goldsborough books quite a bit.

Which is why it came as welcome news that he is due to publish a prequel, of sorts, which speculates as to how Archie and the fat man got together. It's called Archie Meets Nero Wolfe and it's due to hit the shelves in late October or early November.

As Goldsborough says, "In developing the story, I made use of what few clues Mr. Stout had sprinkled around in his tales, including a brief reference to the kidnapping of a wealthy hotelier’s son. That kidnapping became a central focus of my book, along with young Archie Goodwin’s coming of age as a detective in the Manhattan of 1930."

More at the author's site.