Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Formula for Murder, by Carol McCleary

The Formula for Murder
by Carol McCleary
2012

As I've noted before, there's something about the Moors that I find an appealing setting for a novel. Which was what first drew me to Carol McCleary's The Formula for Murder. When I found out that it was a historical mystery that paired real-life reporter Nellie Bly with the likes of H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle I have to admit that I was a bit put off by what seemed like a gimmicky Superheroes of Literature type premise.

But since I already had the book in hand I thought I might as well give it a try and I'm glad that I did. McCleary has apparently written three of these Nellie Bly books in all and they all seem to take a similar approach in teaming the famed muckraking reporter with other well-known personalities of the day.

This one doesn't quite count as a whodunit, for my money, but there's a pretty interesting mystery at the heart of it all. It kicks off with a rather gritty scene that finds Bly in a morgue in London identifying the corpse of a young female colleague. McCleary doesn't really pull any punches here or anywhere else in the book and she provides an interesting perspective on the life of a female reporter in an age when that sort of thing wasn't really done.

As for the mystery, you could safely say that there are some elements of pulp fiction here, with a mad scientist, of sorts, doing some of those unholy experiments that mad scientists always seem to dabble in. As for the guest stars, H.G. Wells - who is not yet a popular writer - gets the most screen time. Wilde, not surprisingly, is a likable rogue with no apparent concern for what anyone else in the world thinks of him. Conan Doyle only makes a few brief appearances, but when he does he more or less serves as the anchor of this diverse group.

Recommended.

Trivia fans, take note. The real Nellie Bly apparently tried her hand at mystery fiction, with The Mystery of Central Park, which was published in 1889.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Movie - Dangerous Blondes

Dangerous Blondes
Based on a story by Kelley Roos
1943

So you've got a well-heeled husband and wife couple who solve crimes in their spare time. He's been known to raise an elbow now and then and he definitely has an eye for the ladies. She tolerates the latter with good grace and there's plenty of witty banter going back and forth between the two. Well, that's gotta be...Barry and Jane Craig.

I have yet to read any fiction by Kelley Roos, but I hope to get around to it eventually. More about this husband and wife mystery fiction writing duo here. Dangerous Blondes is based on the Roos novel If the Shroud Fits and I can't help thinking that the resemblance to Nick and Nora Charles is not wholly accidental. The Thin Man movies were never short on comedy, which is a quality that seems even more evident here, but there's also an okay mystery at the heart of things - the killing of a wealthy old dowager type at an advertising shoot in a gloomy photo studio.

Which was a pretty entertaining piece of work as these comic mysteries go and I found as watchable - or more so - than most of them. Watch for the elevator gag that was resurrected in a Don Knotts movie some decades later and there's a fun quiz show parody that opens the movie and pits a team of police detectives against a team of detective fiction writers (headed by Barry Craig). Can you guess who wins? For that matter, can you guess which of the aforementioned cracks the case? Well, no prize for that one.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Movie - Forty Naughty Girls

Forty Naughty Girls
Based on characters created by Stuart Palmer
1937

Having watched the other five of the Hildegarde Withers movies that were made in the Thirties I couldn't very well skip over this one. But I have to say that I wasn't expecting much - and that was about what I got.

I've reviewed all of the other installments here and written an overview article on the Withers character so I'm not going to devote much ink to this one. It was the last and the least of the movies to feature spinster schoolteacher Withers and her partner in (solving) crime, Inspector Oscar Piper.

The problem here, as with the previous installment - The Plot Thickens - is Zasu Pitts, who simply was not right for the main role. The mix of ditziness and befuddlement that she brings to the character is not what one really expects after the first three movies starring the formidable Edna May Oliver and a follow up starring Helen Broderick. James Gleason turns in a typically good performance as Piper, as he did in every one of the movies, but it's not enough to save the sinking ship.

The plot, if you must know, mostly takes place backstage at a theatre, where various acts of mayhem take place, mostly while a show is going on - a show Withers and Piper just happened to be attending.

Leonard Maltin's capsule review says, in part, "Final Hildegarde Withers mystery-comedy is just plain awful, with Pitts and Gleason getting involved in a backstage murder." I don't know if I'd go quite that far - or maybe I would. But I did kind of like the armor scene. Maybe it's the Stooge fan in me.

Here's a brief take on things from the New York Times, who weren't quite as hard on this gem as Maltin or yours truly.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Crime-Solving Couples of Yesteryear

Crime-Solving Couples of Yesteryear
By William I. Lengeman III

In kicking off an article about amateur detectives of yore, most of whom just happen to be married, the obvious opener would a play on the phrase “’til death do us part.” Since I’m not clever enough to come up with anything I’ll invite the reader to insert their own. In any event, here are a few great couples from way on back. Some are best known for their appearances in fiction while others are remembered for their time spent on the big screen.

Tommy & Tuppence: Chronologically speaking I suppose you’d have to start this list with Agatha Christie’s Tommy and...

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Top 12 of 2012 - Fiction and Film

I suppose I would be remiss if I didn't put together a list of favorites for the year. So here it is. Since I've taken to reviewing quite a lot of mystery film, as well as fiction, it's almost evenly divided between the two. No particular order of preference here, although if you twisted my arm I might let it slip that I really did like Fowler's Seventy-Seven Clocks quite a bit...

FICTION
The Stately Home Murder
by Catherine Aird
Published in 1969, but with (at least) one foot firmly in the Golden Age of Detection. An imposing English mansion, a few murders and plenty of dry wit.

Cards on the Table
by Agatha Christie
One of Christie's more clever Poirot books, if you ask me. The host of a party is killed by one of a foursome of bridge players who are actively engaged in their game at the time of his murder - in the same room.

Seventy-Seven Clocks
by Christopher Fowler
The fourth of Fowler's Bryant & May books and for my money the best. Certainly the wackiest plot/premise of the four I've read and probably the highest body count as well.

1222
by Anne Holt
My first foray into Norwegian mystery fiction. A couple hundred people are stranded in a lodge in the mountains following a train wreck. A blizzard rages without and nefarious deeds are committed within.

Wobble To Death
by Peter Lovesey
It's the late nineteenth century and a hardy band of contestants are vying for a large cash prize at a tough six-day marathon race in London, also known as a wobble. Would you believe that a murder or two breaks out? Imagine that.

Murder of the Bride
by C.S. Challinor
I've become a great fan of Challinor's series about the Scottish barrister, Rex Graves, and this was one of the best of the bunch. Not surprisingly, most of the misdeeds take place at a wedding in a manor house and mostly over the course of one day.

Death on Demand
by Carolyn G. Hart
A bit of a cheat, this one, since I actually wrapped it up two days before 2012 commenced. So sue me. Hart has written a couple dozen books in this series, which concerns an amateur detective who runs a mystery bookstore on a South Carolina island that caters to the tourist trade. This was the first one and the only one I've read thus far, but I'd call it a pretty decent Agatha Christie tribute and a nice showcase for the author's extensive knowledge of the mystery genre.

FILM
The Hound of the Baskervilles
2002
One of the more recent incarnations of Doyle's famous work. I particularly liked Ian Hart's portrayal of Watson, which was a bit different from the standard second banana to the great Holmes.

Death on the Nile
1978
One of the great Agatha Christie works, brought to the big screen in a big way, with big stars and whopping big cinematography. Big, big, big.

Fast Company
1938
The first of a series of three comic whodunits featuring Garda and Joel Sloane, a crime-solving pair of rare book dealers. Different actors took on the main roles each time out, but Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice turn in performances here that any Thin Man fans would be advised to take a look at.

Another Thin Man
1939
Speaking of the Thin Man, my favorite of the five installments I've seen thus far. This time out a wealthy friend of the Charles family is bumped off and Nick and Nora are called upon to crack the case.

Francis in the Haunted House
1956
As I said in the review, it's "the best movie that I've ever seen that featured a talking mule investigating a murder in a haunted house." I stand firmly by that position.