Sunday, February 24, 2013

Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood, by Ron Backer

Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood
By Ron Backer
2012

When I started this site, way back in 1927 (or something like that), I did so because I thought it would be fun to have a record of my thoughts on the mystery fiction I was reading. I wish I'd done it a bit sooner, like before I read the majority of the Nero Wolfe books, but so be it. At the time mystery cinema wasn't really on my radar but it wasn't all that long before I started to discover some of the great mystery films that came out in the Thirties and Forties.

Which is why I did something I rarely do anymore and that's to request a review copy of a book - Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood. Though the name might suggest otherwise it's actually the second volume author Ron Backer wrote on this topic, after Mystery Movie Series of 1940s Hollywood.

And it's great stuff, mind you. I have yet to see the 1940s volume and I hope that I do so one day but this volume is packed to the rafters with more mystery movie series than I had ever imagined could exist. I found the book interesting on two levels. As for as sitting down and reading it, I discovered that I didn't have much use for most of the chapters that covered movies I've never seen. But I found those chapters worthwhile in that they pointed me in the direction of many movies I hadn't previously known about.

Backer has done a thorough job with this volume, looking at 22 series and 167 films in all. He essentially does a fairly in-depth review of each of the films, along with plenty of background on the series itself and major figures such as actors, directors, writers and the like. In the case of those films that got their start as novels or stories, he also provides a section on how the film compared to the source material.

Which is a pretty impressive piece of work and one that I'd highly recommend to anyone who has an interest in these movies. If you don't have an interest in mystery movies from this era check out a few.

From the table of contents, here are the series that Backer covers.

1. Philo Vance: The Upper Class Detective
2. Bulldog Drummond: The English Adventurer
3. Charlie Chan: The Chinese Detective
4. Arsene Lupin: The Gentleman Thief
5. Hildegarde Withers: The Teacher Detective
6. Thatcher Colt: The Police Commissioner
7. Inspector Trent: The Police Detective
8. Nick and Nora Charles: The Thin Man Series
9. Perry Mason: The Defense Attorney
10. Sophie Lang: The Lady Thief
11. Sarah Keate: The Nurse Detective
12. Torchy Blane: The Investigative Reporter
13. Alan O’Connor and Bobbie Reynolds: The Federal Agents
14. Mr. Moto: The Japanese Detective
15. Bill Crane: The Private Detective
16. Joel and Garda Sloane: The Husband and Wife Team
17. Nancy Drew: The Teenage Detective
18. Mr. Wong: The Other Chinese Detective
19. Barney Callahan: The Roving Reporter
20. Brass Bancroft: The Secret Service Agent
21. Tailspin Tommy: The Young Aviator
22. Persons in Hiding: The FBI Story

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Many Deadly Returns, by Patricia Moyes

Many Deadly Returns
by Patricia Moyes
1970

I read a book by Patricia Moyes some time back, before starting this site. If memory serves, it was Twice in a Blue Moon and it was okay but it didn't knock me out of my socks. Many Deadly Returns, which was published almost a quarter of a century earlier, came close to doing just that.

There's nothing in this book that brings anything new or revolutionary to the whodunit - which would have been quite a feat for anyone writing such a work in 1970. But for my money Moyes succeeded in taking some of the time-honored conventions of the form and shaping them into an eminently satisfying whole.

As the story is getting underway, the children of Lady Crystal Balaclava - Primrose, Violet, and Daffodil - and their spouses are preparing to make their annual pilgrimage from various locations around Europe to her English country house to celebrate her birthday. As per custom, one daughter will bring a fancy custom-made cake, another a case of fine champagne and another a bouquet of exquisite roses.

As the celebration is going strong Lady Balaclava proceeds to keel over. Detective Inspector Henry Tibbet (Moyes' regular series character) happens to be on hand because of Lady Balaclava's (well-founded) fear that she was about to be snuffed out and he is rather distraught that the victim was taken out - apparently by poison - right under his own nose.

It's hard to give much more in the way of specifics from here on without spoiling things so I'll just reiterate that Moyes went on to weave a skillfully told tale that kept me riffling through the pages. The fact that I was able to identify the killer - something that I don't often do - may be a commentary on the author's skills with plot, but I'd like to fool myself into thinking that I'm getting better at this sort of thing.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Movie - The Corpse Came COD

The Corpse Came COD
Based on a story by Jimmy Starr
1947

I'm no scholar when it comes to this sort of thing but I'd say that by 1947, when The Corpse Came COD was released, the best days of the comic screwball mystery movie were already in the rear view mirror. It was the same year that saw the release of Song of the Thin Man - the last (and some would say the least) of the Thin Man movies.

But Corpse showed that there was still a little life left in this old sub-genre. The story for this one was based on a 1944 book by one Jimmy Starr, who was a Hollywood reporter and whose protagonist Joe Medford just happened to be in the same line of work. Other Medford books include Three Short Biers (1945) and Heads You Lose (1950). More on this offbeat trilogy here.

Let's start with that title, while we're at it. No symbolism there, but a rather literal interpretation of the events that open the movie, when a Hollywood starlet is asked to cough up 400-some odd dollars to take delivery of a rather large crate that contains some fabric samples and, well...you know. Turns out that said starlet knew the stiff, who was a costume designer who worked with her at the movie studio.

Not knowing who to turn to starlet Mona Harrison decides on Medford, a sort of friend and would-be paramour. He honors her trust by turning the incident into a scoop and before long another reporter - Rosemary Durant - begins to sniff around. And of course it's right about here where that whole screwball battle of the sexes thing begins to kick in, though perhaps not to such good effect as in other films of this breed.

The plot thickens quite a bit from here, with more than a few twists and turns until winding its way to what, at least for me, was a decidedly offbeat and unexpected finish. Maybe a more attentive viewer would have seen this one coming but not me.

I found this one entertaining enough and quite a bit more so than this contemporary reviewer from the New York Times.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Murder She Wrote: The Murder of Sherlock Holmes, by James Anderson

Murder She Wrote:
The Murder of Sherlock Holmes
By James Anderson
1985

If you hang around this site at all you might know that James Anderson is one of the authors I go out of my way to praise. That's the late James Anderson, by the way, who wrote a bunch of mystery fiction but most notably a trilogy of country house mysteries that were published between 1975 and 2003. Read my reviews of these books and an overview I wrote about the trilogy, here.

What I didn't realize until recently is that among the other books Anderson wrote were three novelizations of episodes of the Murder She Wrote series. They are The Murder of Sherlock Holmes, Hooray for Homicide, and Lovers and Other Killers and were apparently issued in a convenient omnibus edition for anyone who absolutely has to have them all.

Just for the fun of it, I decided to try out the first one - The Murder of Sherlock Holmes, which is based on the two-part series opener that was in turn based on a story by series creators Richard Levinson, William Link, and Peter S. Fischer. I've watched a few episodes of Murder She Wrote but not this one, although after reading the book I'll probably seek it out just for curiosity's sake.

Given the constraints inherent in writing a novelization I had no illusions that much of Anderson's style was going to shine through here and for the most part it didn't. Although it seemed that perhaps a few flashes of his dry wit managed to reveal themselves. As for the mystery, it's not a bad one, given that it first saw the light of day as an extended TV episode.

The gist of the thing is that aspiring mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher hits it big with her first book as the story opens and is whisked off (reluctantly) to New York City for a whirlwind publicity tour. At a costume party hosted by her publisher someone in the guise of Sherlock Holmes gets bumped off. Fletcher soon finds that she has a stake in determining who did the killing and works along with local law enforcement - who are actually pretty amicable about this - to crack the case.

I don't know that I'd go quite so far as to recommend this one and I probably won't read the other two by Anderson but there are certainly worse ways to pass the time.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Dark of the Moon, by John Dickson Carr

Dark of the Moon
By John Dickson Carr
1968

Gather round while I relate to you the epic saga of how I attempted to make my way to the end of John Dickson Carr's Dark of the Moon. I picked up a cheap paperback copy quite some time ago at a used bookstore and I was rather keen to read it. After doing so for a short time I put it aside. Then I came back to it. Then I put it aside. Then I came back to it. Then I put it aside. You get the point.

Finally I put it aside for good, on a stack of books that I intended to trade in at the aforementioned store. Or so I thought. Many months later, more or less on a whim, I dug the book out of the stack and started it again. And found, to my surprise, that it was relatively smooth going. For a while, anyway, until about the two-thirds mark, when I put it aside again. Finally, not so long ago, I came back to it and finished it off.

Which might lead one to believe that I didn't like this book very much. But that's not quite true. Right here, I'll note that I'm not real well versed in Carr, having read perhaps ten of his books in all. But from reading the opinions of others I gather that his later books are not nearly as well regarded as the earlier ones. If Dark of the Moon is any indicator I think I can see why. This was the fourth to the last of the books to be published before his death in 1977 and the last to feature his series character Gideon Fell.

Who is called to the house of an acquaintance on a coastal island in South Carolina, a state where Carr apparently spent his later years. After rather a lot of slow-paced preamble and working around to the point someone is bumped off in a manner that anyone who knows Carr will find familiar. This time around the master of the impossible crime trots out another of those sandy beach type gems, in which the victim is found in an expanse of sand with no footprints around but his own.

The pace hardly picks up from here, if I do say so myself, but eventually the whole meandering conglomeration of a contraption of a story works its way around to one of those lengthy reveal scenes. As for the explanation of the crime, I wouldn't go quite so far as to cry foul, but I would say that the author really stretched my credibility to the limit. Of course, if the killer had merely clocked the victim with a blunt object and been done with it it would hardly have been a proper John Dickson Carr book, now would it?

I guess what I found trickiest about this book, as I've noted, was that languid pace and meandering nature of the plot. Perhaps it was because he was getting up in years and living in and writing about a place where things move at a slower pace that things played out this way. On the plus side, however, Carr does what I've always felt he does best - perhaps as much or even more than all that impossible crime stuff - and that's to create a truly memorable atmosphere and sense of place.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Amendment of Life, by Catherine Aird

Amendment of Life
By Catherine Aird
2003

I haven't read a lot of Catherine Aird's books but I've been impressed with those titles I've taken for a spin so far. I actually read Amendment of Life some time back, before starting this site, but I thought I'd give it another go, something I rarely do regardless of who the author is.

I'll say at the outset that while I liked this one I didn't think it quite measured up to some of the other Aird books I've read, especially The Stately Home Murder, which is at the top of my heap thus far. Like all of Aird's books (with perhaps one exception?) this one focuses on Inspector C.D. Sloan, who solves crimes with the help of - or perhaps in spite of - his dimwitted sidekick, Constable Crosby, and his clueless boss.

This time around Sloan is called to Aumerle Court, another one of those grand estates that turn up in so much British mystery fiction. The nifty twist this time around is that the estate boasts a hedge maze (think The Shining) of the sort that people pay to wander into and get lost.

Well, as the discerning mystery fiction fan could easily deduce, this would be a pretty blitheringly obvious place for a stiff to turn up and what do you know? Of course, it's only a matter of time before Sloan and Crosby run the culprit to the ground and it's here where I felt that Aird faltered perhaps just a bit.

I'm not all that fanatical about the need for fair play in this type of mystery novel and I didn't think Aird really did play completely fair, mind you. But what I had the most problem with was that the solution ultimately seemed just a bit too farfetched to swallow. There were also a few too suspects to really make things sporting for the reader.

So I probably wouldn't recommend this as the first Aird book someone would want to read but even Aird on an off day is worlds ahead of a lot of other writers.