Showing posts with label James Bond. Show all posts
Showing posts with label James Bond. Show all posts

10 May 2018

Actor, Writer, Catcher, Spy

by Eve Fisher

I just heard that Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd, and Jeff Daniels are all joining in a movie about Moe Berg (1902-1972), professional baseball player. He played pro for 15 seasons (1923-1939), mostly as a backup catcher. But he was called "the brainiest guy in baseball," and I can see why.  An Ivy League graduate, attorney, and baseball player who spoke nine language?  Well, of COURSE he would be a prime candidate for a spy with the OSS. 

MoeBergGoudeycard.jpgBerg began his work in 1934, when he was touring Japan with the American All-Star team. In 1943, he parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia to determine which of the resistance groups was the strongest.  (He decided for Tito, and he was right.)   He was also sent around Europe in the 1940's to collect intelligence on Germany’s efforts to build an atom bomb. If he believed the Germans were close to developing nuclear weapons, he had orders to shoot the lead physicist, Werner Heisenberg. He decided they weren't. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1945, but declined.

Things changed, though.  In the early 50's he worked for the CIA, very briefly, because they quickly decided he was "flaky". For the next 20 years, he lived with his brother, Samuel, reading and snarking and unemployed. Sam evicted him, and he lived with his sister Ethel in Belleville, New Jersey until he died.


There's a long list of unlikely spies, if you think of spies as being a specific, separate job, as in a Le Carré novel or Ian Fleming novel.  But the truth is, writers (including Le Carré and Fleming) and entertainers have been the first choice to hire for years.

The first recorded one is Thessalus, a tragic actor in Hellenistic Greece, who accompanied Alexander the Great on the long expedition to conquer the Persian empire (and, as far as Alexander could, the world). He served as an envoy (and probable spy) for Alexander to Pixodarus of Caria (southwestern Anatolia, current day Turkey) in 336 BCE.

Geoffrey Chaucer was another one.  He has a surprisingly well-documented life for the medieval son of a vintner.  Let's put it this way:  vintners were simply wealthy peasants in the view of the aristocracy.  And being a poet - well, anonymity was the order of the day for artists of all kinds.

But somehow, Chaucer got placed a page in the house of the Countess of Ulster.  He married Philippa de Roet, the sister of John of Gaunt's 30 year mistress Katherine Swynford, who eventually (through what many people of the day believed had to be either witchcraft or a miracle of God) became John of Gaunt's third wife.  In other words, Chaucer had connections:  and besides becoming one of the great poets of the English language, he became a courtier, diplomat, soldier, lawyer, and civil servant.  And spy.  

He spent a tremendous amount of his life traveling on either King Edward III or Richard II or John of Gaunt's shilling:  France, Spain, and Flanders, the Italian states, perhaps in pursuit of a princess for the young Richard to marry; and/or to negotiate peace; and/or to borrow money from the Visconti and/or Sir John Hawkwood in Milan; and/or for who knows what?  We're all guessing when it comes to what medieval potentates (or modern potentates) really wanted.  (For a great study of the actualities and possibilities of Chaucer's role as diplomat and spy, read Monty Python alum and medieval scholar Terry Jones' Who Murdered Chaucer?  Mesmerizing.)  

Some other writers are more surprising.  Graham Greene, John Le Carré and Ian Fleming make sense, because they all worked for British intelligence at one point or another.  But Roald Dahl?  Julia Child?  Harry Houdini?

Roald Dahl.jpg
Roald Dahl
Both Scotland Yard and the American Secret Service used Houdini's escape artistry for their own ends.  Houdini was notorious for going into police stations around the world - including Russia (hint, hint) - where he insisted on being locked up so that he could prove he was the greatest escape artist in the world!  The locals were wowed!  He did it again!  And he left town with his reputation intact (he always escaped), and a lot of information.  (No, I don't know what kind.)

Roald Dahl was a three time Edgar Award winner, who wrote the classic "Lamb to the Slaughter" (short story and immortal "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episode), as well as dark children's masterpieces like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and The Witches.  During WW2, he worked with Ian Fleming and others to write propaganda to help the war effort.  He also was attached to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., where he was stunned by American luxury: "I'd just come from the war. People were getting killed. I had been flying around, seeing horrible things. Now, almost instantly, I found myself in the middle of a pre-war cocktail party in America." Dahl later said: "My job was to try to help Winston to get on with FDR, and tell Winston what was in the old boy's mind."  (see Wikipedia)

And then there's Julia Child, who started out as an OSS research assistant and definitely moved up the ladder.  According to Wikipedia

Julia Child at KUHT.jpg"In 1944, she was posted to Kandy, Ceylon, where her responsibilities included "registering, cataloging and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications" for the OSS's clandestine stations in Asia.[9] She was later posted to Kunming, China, where she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat.[10] When Child was asked to solve the problem of too many OSS underwater explosives being set off by curious sharks, "Child's solution was to experiment with cooking various concoctions as a shark repellent," which were sprinkled in the water near the explosives and repelled sharks.[11] Still in use today, the experimental shark repellent "marked Child's first foray into the world of cooking..."
While I couldn't find a playable video of The Bobs' "Julia's Too Tall" song about her, I did find a couple of lyrics: "She's too tall to be a spy. But not too tall to bake a pie..."  But I disagree. I think her being too tall made her a perfect spy.  No one ever thought of Chaucer, Child, Houdini, Berg or Dahl and instantly went, Spy! which is probably part of why they were so successful.  

Which raises the interesting question of why Ian Fleming - who certainly knew better - made James Bond so damned obvious.  Apparently, on November 29, 2016, Anthony Horowitz and David Farr got into a 90 minute debate as to who was the greatest spy novelist of all time, Fleming or Le Carré.  (Full Transcript.)  Horowitz' summation was that ‘George Smiley is a fascinating character. James Bond is an icon. That’s the difference.’

And that's largely true, despite the fact that James Bond was actually a horrible spy. Think about it:  He uses his real name.  All the time.  He blows his cover, every time.  He gets captured.  All the time.  And he destroys everything he touches...  There's a whole lot of things get blown up, run over, caved in, and I'm not just talking about the women.   (10-reasons-james-bond-worst-spy-.) 

I don't know if John Le Carré and Ian Fleming ever met, but I do know that Le Carré had his own problems with James Bond.  In an interview in 1966 with BBC's Malcolm Muggeridge, he said, "I dislike Bond. I'm not sure that Bond is a spy. I think it's a great mistake if one's talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all. It seems to me he is more of some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a licence to kill...  he is a man entirely out of the political context.  It is of no interest to Bond who for instance, is president of the US or the Union of Soviet Republics."

Reflecting on the interview in 2010 he said : " These days I would be much kinder. I suppose we have lost sight of the books in favour of the film versions, haven't we ? I was a young man and I knew I had written about the reality in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and that the Fleming stuff was a fantasisation of his own experiences written from the safety of New York."  (Citation)

La nuit de Varennes (1982)Then again, maybe it's not all fantasisation.  Fleming was notoriously heavy drinker, smoker, and womanizer.  Or perhaps he was channeling another great spy, whose womanizing, gambling, style, and sheer effrontery made him welcome everywhere, even after it was known he was a Venetian spy.  Who else, but Casanova?

It's amazing that, of all the spies, Casanova has the worst movies made about him.  With one brilliant exception.  If you get a chance, beg, borrow, or steal a copy of La Nuit de Varennes, where Thomas Paine, Restif de la Bretonne (pornographer, journalist, and philosopher, often called "the Voltaire of the chambermaids"), and Casanova and others all chase down Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as they desperately try to escape Paris and their coming doom.  It is comical, philosophical, sexual, historically accurate, beautiful, horrific, and constantly entertaining.  The highlight is Marcello Mastroianni as Casanova in old age - still stylish, still courteous, still gallant, still arrogant... and ruefully, wearily truthful, even to himself. 

I'd love to see a movie with James Bond in old age - see if he has the same grace and presence.  But then, icons don't change.  Fascinating characters do. 

Oh, and yes, that's a young Harvey Keitel as Thomas Paine - it's a hard movie to beat.  Enjoy!















23 June 2017

A Bond By Any Other Name?

By Art Taylor

I'm writing this week's post from Atlantic Beach, NC, where my son Dash and I are spending the week visiting with my parents and my brother. It's almost squarely the middle of our trip as I'm beginning this post, and it's been a fine, fun week already—and fine and fun also describe nicely the beach reading I brought down with me.

While most of my reading throughout the years relates to work of some kind or another—texts on my syllabi, a book I'm slated to review,  readings for an anthology I'm helping edit or a contest I'm helping judge—I do try to balance out those stories or books with a few solely for pleasure. For our getaway this week, I packed Forever and a Death by the late Donald Westlake. The book began as a film treatment by Westlake, who was asked to contribute a story to the James Bond film franchise—but when elements of the book proved too political for the filmmakers, the film itself was never made, and Westlake wrote a novel instead, one never released during the author's lifetime. Hard Case Crime finally published the book just last week—the third of Westlake's previously unpublished works to be released by Hard Case since the author's death.

Donald Westlake and James Bond?!?! As a fan not only of Westlake's writing but also of the Bond series in both books and film, how could I resist? I snapped it up immediately.

Before we get to that Westlake + Bond equation, I want to mention the Bond + beach equation. My family has had a home somewhere along North Carolina's Crystal Coast for most of my life, and even the anticipation of reading a new Bond novel in this setting brought back several fond memories, since I discovered so many of Fleming's original books at the beach and then too the subsequent series by John Gardner, who began writing his own Bond novels when I was in my early teens—perfect timing for me as a reader. I distinctly remember being in our house in Emerald Isle one weekend during the school year when I was supposed to be pushing through Homer's Odyssey (at left is the cover of the W.H.D. Rouse translation we'd been assigned) and yet being drawn instead to Fleming's Spy Who Loved Me, such an unusual and fascinating book in the series as anyone who's read it knows. (As I recall, I balanced things out by rewarding myself with a little Bond for each section of Odysseus's journey I pushed through. And thinking about it now, aren't there many similarities between Odysseus's travels and Bond's own travails? Tempting Circe, the threatening Cyclops, twists and troubles at every turn of an international adventure.)

Speaking of Gardner: Though I don't remember his books as clearly, I do remember enjoying them very much, and I should add that I'm generally fascinated by what other authors have done with the character and the series. I still haven't read Kingsley Amis's Colonel Sun, the first non-Fleming Bond book, and I never got around to Raymond Benson's contributions, but in recent years I've very much admired the various treatments offered by Sebastian Faulks, Jeffery Deaver, and William Boyd—the ways each of these authors have balanced the iconic character/story against their own interests and aesthetic temperaments. (I leave Anthony Horowitz out of the list here only because I haven't read it yet either.)

So it was with some mix of both nostalgia and anticipation that I opened up the new Westlake—and found myself immersed immediately in what seemed familiar terrain: a powerful, wealthy villain in the first stages of a diabolical plan that would ultimately prove catastrophic for millions of people. Between Westlake's deft prose, the short chapters cross-cutting between several characters' perspectives, and cliffhangers at every turn, Forever and a Death has proven a joy from the start—and yes, the perfect beach read, even without the fact that so much of the novel's thrilling opening section takes place on the water.

And yet, more than 200 pages into it as I write this post, one perhaps key element of a James Bond novel seems missing—namely, James Bond himself.

Having read only small bits of advance press on Forever and a Death—more about its backstory than the story itself—I'll admit that I did expect some Bond-like figure here in one form or another. Maybe not Bond by name, of course, and who knew whether the character would be more Connery or more Craig or more Moore? But certainly he would be a secret agent of some kind, missioned and skilled and licensed to kill, right?

Whatever those expectations, however, my enthusiasm for the book hasn't waned a bit, even as Bond himself has failed to show up. On the contrary, I'm actually finding myself intrigued in fresh ways by that central character's absence—imagining the process by which Westlake must have reworked this story from the original film treatment, the decisions he must have made in translating that original story into this new one.

I understand that there's an afterword here by a producer from the Bond franchise, and I've hesitated so far looking at it for fear of plot spoilers. But I'm hoping that the essay will offer some glimpses at the original treatment and some insights into how it became this.

In the meantime, though, I'm just enjoying the ride. 

I know many of my fellow SleuthSayers are devoted Bond fans too from previous posts here—so how about a quick question: What's your favorite Bond book not written by Ian Fleming? From what I'd read myself (see exceptions above), I'll vote William Boyd's Solo, and my review at the Washington Post detailed the reasons why. Your choice? 

(Or for folks who aren't Bond fans, what author continuing another author's series ranks as your own favorite?)  

11 October 2016

Killing Me Softly With Your Song…or Anything Else You Have Handy

by Paul D. Marks

As mystery/thriller writers, we know there are certainly a lot of ways to kill someone. As Kid Shelleen (Lee Marvin), says in “Cat Ballou”: “Guns, bottles, fists, knives, clubs - all the same to me. All the same to you?”

But let’s face it – been there, done that – and these are pretty mundane and ordinary ways to off someone. If you want to kill someone in an interesting and unique way, especially if you’re a character in a movie or book, you have to let the creative juices flow, like Herb Hawkins (Hume Cronyn) and Joseph Newton (Henry Travers) do in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (even if not in script format or what ended up in the film):   

     
Herb (Cronyn): You folks are getting pretty stylish. Having dinner later every evening.
Joe (Travers): Ha ha!
Herb:  l-l picked some mushrooms.
Joe: You don't say?
Herb: Mushrooms mean anything to you, Joe?
Joe: I eat 'em on my steak when I'm out and the meat's not good enough as it is.
Herb: If I brought you some mushrooms, would you eat 'em?
Joe: Suppose I would. Why?
Herb: Then I've got it. The worst I'd be accused of would be manslaughter. Doubt if I'd get that.   Accidental death, pure and simple. A basket of good mushrooms and...two or three poisonous              ones.
     Joe: No, no. Innocent party might get the poisonous ones. I thought of something better 
     when I was shaving. A bath tub. Pull the legs out from under you, hold you down. 
     Young Charlie (Teresa Wright): Oh, what's the matter with you two? Do you always have to 
     talk about killing people?
     Joe: We're not talking about killing people. Herb's talking about killing me, 
     and I'm talking about killing him.
     Mrs. Newton/Emmy (Patricia Collinge): Charlie, it's your father's way of relaxing.
     Young Charlie: Can't he find some other way to relax? Can't we have a little peace and quiet 
     without dragging in poisons all the time? 
     Mrs. Newton: Charlie! She doesn’t ' t make sense talking like that. I'm worried about her.

***

Of course, there’s always poison. Sure it’s been done before, but what hasn’t. So maybe get creative with it like this bit from The Court Jester:

    Hawkins (Danny Kaye): I've got it! I've got it! The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the             pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true! Right?
    Griselda (Mildred Natwick): Right. But there's been a change: they broke the chalice from the                 palace!
    Hawkins: They *broke* the chalice from the palace?
    Griselda: And replaced it with a flagon.
    Hawkins: A flagon...?
    Griselda: With the figure of a dragon.
    Hawkins: Flagon with a dragon.
    Griselda: Right.
    Hawkins: But did you put the pellet with the poison in the vessel with the pestle?
    Griselda: No! The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon! The vessel with the pestle        has the brew that is true!
    Hawkins: The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has          the brew that is true.
    Griselda: Just remember that.

Uh, okay.

***

So let’s talk about some creative ways to kill someone, though this list will hardly be complete.
And here’s a starter list of many fun, fab and creative ways to die as found in movies:

Poison string – James Bond
Light Saber – Star Wars
Captive Bolt Pistol – No Country for Old Men
Painted to death (gold, of course) – Goldfinger
Odd Job’s Hat – Goldfinger / James Bond
Chain Saw – American Psycho and, of course, The Texas Chainsaw Murders
Infection – Night of the Living Dead, V for Vendetta
Getting stomped to death by Ryan Gosling – Drive
Getting shower rodded to death by Ryan Gosling – Drive
(I could just list all the killings in Drive here and have a pretty good list…)
Getting stabbed to death by an ear of corn – Sleepwalkers
Wood chippered – Fargo
Getting raked to death - Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers
Getting skulled by a Louisville Slugger – the Untouchables
Getting blasted from a cancer gun – Videodrome
Getting run over by Bozo – Toxic Avenger
Sliced and diced and decapitated by flying glass – The Omen
Getting impaled by a stalactite – Cliffhanger
Luca Brasi getting garroted in The Godfather
Steak-boned to death – Law Abiding Citizen

And let’s not forget the multitude of “fun” deaths in the Saw movie series with its mélange of creative and grisly deaths: http://sawfilms.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_deaths

This list of creative mayhem is by no means exhaustive nor complete. It’s barely the tip of the iceberg – in fact, I’m sure someone was iceberged to death in the movies…like in Titanic.

             
Oscar Wilde puts it pretty well in The Ballad Of Reading Gaol:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword.

So what are some your favorite ways to off someone that you’ve read about or seen in a movie? Hmm…

***

Please check out my story Deserted Cities of the Heart in Akashic’s recently released St. Louis Noir.




###

16 April 2016

The Man With the Golden Typewriter


by John M. Floyd


A couple weeks ago I did something unusual: I chose to ignore all the novels and short-story magazines in my towering to-be-read stack and bought a book of nonfiction. Or maybe not that unusual, since this was the third time this year that I've delved into NF. But the first two books were In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick and Cities of Gold by Douglas Preston, and I knew before reading those that I would enjoy them because they were true-life adventure stories, sort of like Unbroken and The Perfect Storm. I had doubts about this one.

The book turned out to be a good choice. It's called The Man With the Golden Typewriter, a 400-page collection of letters from and to Ian Fleming. The letters begin in 1952, when he started work on his first book, and continue until his death in 1964, at the age of 56. During that time he wrote two works of nonfiction, a three-volume children's story, twelve James Bond novels, and two collections of Bond short stories. All the Bond books were created at Goldeneye, Fleming's vacation home in Jamaica. The letters, compiled by his nephew Fergus Fleming, provide a fascinating look into the working life and the personal life of a bestselling author at the peak of his success.

To me, the most interesting of the letters were those to and from his publisher, Jonathan Cape of London, and the editors and agents who worked with him on the novels. Other exchanges included those with readers and fans; with friends like Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, and Raymond Chandler; and with film producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Here are some excerpts:


To Michael Howard, editorial director at Jonathan Cape, April 22, 1953:

"In the course of the innumerable editions of Casino Royale which will now, I presume, flow from your presses, could you please correct a rather attractive misprint on page 90, line 13, and make the 'Ace of Spaces' into the 'Ace of Spades'?"

To Sir Winston Churchill (along with a gift copy of Live and Let Die), April 1, 1954 :

"It is an unashamed thriller, and its only merit is that it makes no demands on the mind of the reader."

From friend and editor William Plomer, May 31, 1954:

"Dear Ian . . . I have been through it [Moonraker] with minute care and a pencil & have applied both to your punctuation and spelling . . . you have a tendency, as the climax approaches, to increase the strain on the reader's credulity . . . Not pleased with the title. I should like Hell Is Here . . . I think you should be careful about letting your characters grunt, bark, and snarl too freely."

To actress Claudette Colbert, April 28, 1955:

"I am very sad that you will not be in Goldeneye next winter . . . I have little hope of getting out to Los Angeles this year. I was there in November and I have absolutely no excuse for another holiday unless Hollywood decides to film one of my books."

To Michael Howard (who'd just designed the cover for Diamonds Are Forever), February 14, 1956:

"Forgive the tropic scrawl. I am sitting in the shade gazing out across the Caribbean & it is heroic that I am writing at all."

To Raymond Chandler, April 17, 1956:

"Dear Ray . . . You after all write novels of suspense--if not sociological studies--whereas my books are straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang kiss-kiss variety."

From editor Daniel George, regarding From Russia With Love, June 7, 1956:

"Similes should be used only when they are helpful . . . in the first chapter . . . you say the man's eyelids twitched suddenly like the ears of a horse. Up to that moment I'd visualized the scene perfectly. You destroyed my illusion by bringing in a horse . . ."

To Michael Howard, Feb 4, 1957:

"I have done nearly 40,000 of No. 6. . . Set near Jamaica. Called Doctor No, I think. A simple tale. It shouldn't be longer than 60, you'll be glad to hear."

To a complaining reader who knew his trains, July 19, 1957:

"Your quick eye has missed one grievous error [in From Russia With Love] pointed out by another train enthusiast. I gave the Orient Express hydraulic brakes instead of vacuum."

From William Plomer, June 28, 1958:

"My dear Ian, I have just finished Goldfinger, and it stuck to me like a limpet, or limpet-mine . . . I found the tension of the [golf] game tremendous. In fact I believe you could create extreme anxiety out of a cake-judging competition . . ."

To Plomer, March 29, 1960:

"I have just finished a giant Bond, provisionally called Thunderball . . . I have just begun correcting the first chapters. They are not too bad--it is the last twenty chapters that glaze my eyes."

To Robert Kennedy, June 20, 1962:

"Thank you very much for your charming note of June 1st . . . Over here we are all watching with fascination your gallant attempts to harass American gangsterism. If James Bond can be any help to you please let me know and I will have a word with M."

To William Plomer, regarding You Only Live Twice, September 11, 1962:

"I have no idea how Bond in Japan will turn out, but I have in mind an absolutely daft story in which Blofeld meets his match."

To Aubrey Forshaw, head of Pan Books, Ltd., May 20, 1964:

"I don't think much of Harry Saltzman's new jacket for Goldfinger. The golden girl looks like a man and there is far too much jazz about the film. Why the hell should we advertise Saltzman and Broccoli on one of my books? And on the back I see that Sean Connery gets at least twice the size type as the author."



The book is full of these little glimpses into the world of Fleming and Bond. I loved it.

If anyone's interested, here's a list of Ian Fleming's works:

Casino Royale (1953)
Live and Let Die (1954)
Moonraker (1955)
Diamonds Are Forever (1956)
From Russia With Love (1957)
Dr. No (1958)
Goldfinger (1959)
For Your Eyes Only (1960)*
Thunderball (1961)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1962)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1963)
You Only Live Twice (1964)
The Man With the Golden Gun (1965)
Octopussy and The Living Daylights (1966)*
The Diamond Smugglers (1957)
Thrilling Cities (1963)
Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang (1964-65)

*short-story collections


And here are the Bond movies, so far:

Dr. No (1962)
From Russia With Love (1963)
Goldfinger (1964)
Thunderball (1965)
You Only Live Twice (1967)
On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Live and Let Die (1973)
The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Moonraker (1979)
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Octopussy (1983)
Never Say Never Again (1983)
From a View to a Kill (1985)
The Living Daylights (1987)
License to Kill (1989)
GoldenEye (1995)
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Die Another Day (2002)
Casino Royale (2006)*
Quantum of Solace (2008)
Skyfall (2012)
Spectre (2015)

*Casino Royale also appeared in 1954 as an episode of the TV drama series Climax! (Barry Nelson was Bond) and as a spy comedy in 1967.


Most readers know that Fleming picked the name of his hero from a real book called Birds of the West Indies by James Bond, but there are a Bentley-load of other interesting facts about him as well. And Fleming did actually own a gold-plated typewriter--a gift to himself for having completed his first novel.

Part of my interest in all this came from the fact that I had read all the Bond books when I was in high school--my mother made me hide them if the local minister came to visit (because, I guess, of the cover art)--and I've seen all the Bond movies, several times each. Apparently I'm not alone: In the book, Fergus Fleming says it has been estimated that one in five of the world's population has seen a James Bond film.

I now plan to re-read all the novels and re-watch all the movies, in order--I have all of them right here on my shelves--and I'm already halfway through Casino Royale. I don't have any caviar in the house or an Aston-Martin in the garage or any Turkish-and-Balkan-blend cigarettes to smoke while I read, but I do have a tux in the closet if I need it, and I try to imagine that my glass of orange juice is a medium dry martini with a thin twist of lemon peel.

And my OJ was shaken, not stirred.




15 November 2015

Spectre

Spectre
© MGM and Kotaku
by Leigh Lundin

My friend Geri is a movie fan and yesterday she and I saw Spectre. British reviewers loved it; American critics– not so much. That surprised me because Geri and I found ourselves in the British camp.

Getting the Critics Out of the Way

To be fair, one critic (Bob Grimm, Reno News and Review) writes “I don't need to know everything about James Bond and his upbringing. A little depth is fine, but this one goes too far. Just blow things up.”

Okay, one mindless drivel fan upset by thought processes. But Grimm’s claim is spurious considering Spectre claims the largest screen explosion ever recorded. Maybe he stepped out for popcorn.

But even American critics who liked it were critical. “Entertains even at its fails to reconcile its disparate goals. It just feels like a missed opportunity for something special.” (Greg Maki, Easton Star-Democrat) “What starts as a fast and loose adventure begins to creak and groan as it tries to tie everything together…” (Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects) And one critic called it “the worst 007 movie in 30 years.” (Scott Mendelson, Forbes) Oh, harsh. Ouch! And wrong.

I haven’t forgotten all those middling movies between Sean Connery and Daniel Craig, and Spectre shines against most of those. The main reason is that Bond is a sociopath. Sure, he works for Mother England, dutifully exhibits loyalty and women find him sexy, but he’s an assassin, which takes a sociopathic man or woman. Of the Bond wannabes, only Connery and Craig pull that off successfully. Indeed, even one of the movies critics recognizes this while failing to grasp the essence of thrillers. “Daniel dagger-eyes Craig … seems biologically incompatible with camp entertainment.” (Luke Buckmaster, Crikey) One of Fleming's novels portrays Bond with a masochistic streak that helps 007 survive torture and might fit Craig's image as well.

A heroic character can be no greater than the sum of the bad guys he faces. And here Spectre goes a little soft. The very best of the Bond films drew out the meanest bad guys. In Spectre, the heavy henchman, a brute named Hinx, proves physically imposing but you get the feeling Odd-Job could have eaten his lunch. The major antagonist has psychological problems, but he’s no Dr. No.

Hans and Franz

Did you notice that pussycat-stroking Blofeld has been missing in the Bond series for decades? Four-and-a-half to be precise? There’s a sound reason for that– Blofeld was held hostage by Spectre– and Spectre was controlled by lawyers. Really.

Remember the 1983 Never Say Never Again that brought back Sean Connery? Recall that remake of Thunderball didn’t feel like the other Bond movies but did feature Spectre and James Bond’s persistent nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld? Most viewers shrugged it off to Connery getting too old to play an action figure, but there’s more behind the story.

In high school, I read the 007 books and a short story or two, novels which included Spectre and Blofeld, but until today, I hadn’t realized author Ian Fleming didn’t own the rights to them. A screenwriter named Kevin McClory did.

In mid-1958, Fleming and his friend Ivar Bryce decided to hammer out a film treatment of Fleming’s works. Bryce introduced him to two other men, Ernest L. Cuneo, an American writer, intelligence liaison, and war hero, and Kevin McClory, an Irish screenwriter and director. McClory brought in his friend Jack Whittingham, a British playwright.

The five developed the plot for the movie Thunderball. Meantime, McClory’s own feature film, The Boy and the Bridge, did poorly as the official British entry to the 1959 Venice Film Festival and it tanked at the box office. Right or wrong, Fleming lost confidence in McClory.

Spectre logo
Without consulting anyone, Fleming turned the movie script into his 1961 novel. The author credited Cuneo with much of the plot for Thunderball (and later Goldfinger) but not McClory and Whittingham. They sued.

During the lengthy trial, Fleming suffered a heart attack. He offered a settlement to McClory, which resulted in Fleming keeping the novel and McClory winning film rights for the screenplay as well as screen rights to Spectre and Blofeld. Nine months later Ian Fleming died from another heart attack.

Two years ago today, McClory’s estate finally settled their legal issues and MGM acquired the copyrights to Spectre and Blofeld. For the first time in forty-four years, Bond could battle those nemeses on the silver screen.

In the storyline, Spectre gives the Blofeld character a twist. The movie Octopussy bears little relation to Fleming’s short story of the same name, which mentions a character, Hannes Oberhauser. In this reboot, Oberhauser’s envious son, Franz, kills his father and rebrands himself as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, master criminal.

Spectre poster
Homages

One of the most interesting aspects of Spectre is that it was made by people who know and love movies, especially the early Bond films. Scenes and sentences reflect references to other films and even my favorite television drama, The Prisoner.

In numerous ways, Spectre harks back to the earliest Bond films including Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball. Notice the Rolls-Royce Phantom at the train station looks a lot like that of Auric Goldfinger's. The MI6 safe house bears the name Hildebrand & Company — Rarities & Antiquities, a reference to Fleming’s short story ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’ in the 1960 For Your Eyes Only. Beyond those canon references, other film nods leaped out at me.

The opening shot in Mexico is evocative of the famous extended opening shot in the 1958 Touch of Evil. (Whereas Orson Welles used a single camera, Spectre cheated a bit with CGI.)

It could be argued that Spectre’s secret meeting place in Rome is reminiscent of the coven’s secret lair in Eyes Wide Shut.

The most obvious film hinted at is Casablanca. I need not say more.

Spectre pays its respects to Hitchcock from the romantic ’40s casting of Léa Seydoux to the train scenes found in numerous Hitchcock films (not to mention From Russia with Love) including The Lady Vanishes, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, North by Northwest, and of course Strangers on a Train.

Similarities to the brilliant series The Prisoner struck me more than once. (“We want information.”) Note the information gatherers in the Moroccan desert, which seem slightly dated compared to Patrick McGoohan’s 1967 television series.

What homages did you catch?

13 August 2015

No Sex, Please, We're Skittish

by Eve Fisher

"If you mention sex at an AA meeting, even the non-smokers light up."
--Father Tom, "Learning to Live With Crazy People"
Agatha Christie.png
Agatha Christie

And so do a lot of mystery writers and readers.  There are those who write and/or love cozies, and want everything as asexual as they think Agatha Christie was.  Except, of course, that if you actually read your Agatha Christie, there's a lot of hot stuff going on:  In AT BERTRAM'S HOTEL, Ladislaw Malinowski is sleeping with both Elvira Blake and her mother Bess Sedgwick, and that fact alone is one of the major drivers of the plot.  In SAD CYPRESS, Roddy Welman's sudden, overwhelming attraction to Mary Gerrard makes everything homicidal possible.  And, in at least three novels, a man's lust for one woman, combined with his lust for money, makes it possible for him to marry and murder a rich wife.

Then there's the noir crowd:  


“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”
― Raymond Chandler, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY
“I loved her like a rabbit loves a rattlesnake.”
― James M. Cain, DOUBLE INDEMNITY
Brigid O'Shaughnessy: “I haven't lived a good life. I've been bad, worse than you could know.”
Sam Spade: “You know, that's good, because if you actually were as innocent as you pretend to be, we'd never get anywhere.”
― Dashiell Hammett, THE MALTESE FALCON

In noir, EVERYTHING is about sex.  That and greed.  But mostly sex, and often violent sex. (Prime examples are probably the "rip me" scene of James M. Cain's THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE - and Mickey Spillane's VENGEANCE IS MINE, in which - and I think it's the first chapter - he beats a woman before having his way with her and she loves it all.)  The noir guys all moon over the virgins (Walter Huff over his victim's daughter; Mike Hammer over Velda), but the women who obsess them are anything but. And so of course they hurt them, twist them, torture them, betray them, all of the above.  Truth is, after a long day in noir-land, you want to yell at them, "Try somewhere else besides a bar to meet women!   Buy the girl some flowers!  Try to stay sober for ten minutes!" but it's all a waste of breath.  (Except, apparently, to Nick Charles who got a clue and a rich wife.)

And spies...

The upper center of the poster reads "Meet James Bond, secret agent 007. His new incredible women ... His new incredible enemies ... His new incredible adventures ..." To the right is Bond holding a gun, to the left a montage of women, fights and an explosion. On the bottom of the poster are the credits.

Spy stories, of course, depend on global locales, tech wizardry, constant weapons, supervillains, and a high body count for both sex and death.   Women, women, women, of all ethnicities, although Russian spies are a perennial favorite.  (Is it the accent, or the idea of nudity and fur?)  I just read a novel in which the male American spy and the female Russian spy were mutually obsessed, madly, madly in love/lust/etc., to the point where I really thought that the cover should be of her holding him against her exceptionally large chest, hair flowing like a female Fabio...  Anyway, sex drives these plots as well, no matter what the spy or the supervillain think, because - besides providing objects of rescue, thus securing another reason for the ensuing sex - 90% of the time at least one of those women is going to save the male spy from certain death. The game is to figure out which one by, say, page five.  

Horror.  Sex = death.  The survivor's a virgin.  What more can I say?  



So, to all of those who say that mysteries are all about cerebral detection, and that there isn't much place for sex in them - WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?  

As Oscar Wilde once said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”  

You could look it up...





03 November 2013

Old Characters, New Novels

by Leigh Lundin

Criminal Brief readers might remember pastiches have to be damn good to win me over. That doesn't mean I dismiss or entirely dislike old heroes brought back to life by other than their original authors, but they must attain a high standard. One of our own, Dale Andrews with his thorough research, sets a high bar with his Ellery Queen stories.

Pastiche authors also have to capture the flavor of the original stories, the era, the settings, and especially the characters. More often than not, one of these will fall flat. Then the question becomes whether readers (and movie viewers) accept the character.

The Saint
The Saint
Saintly Motives

Often acceptance hinges upon what a reader or viewer is first exposed to. I recall an English friend complaining bitterly about the Roger Moore version of The Saint. At first blush, what wasn't to like? The cast and crew were British and whilst the series wasn't as good as anything the Patricks  appeared in (McGoohan and MacNee (not to mention Diana Rigg's Emma Peel)), it was a good diversion.

And then I started reading The Saint novels and became properly hooked. I understood ITC failed to capture the period and much of the ambiance of Leslie Charteris' characters.

Shelfish Motives

One other reason I'm slow to embrace pastiches is the abundance of fresh and perhaps unique stories that might never see the light of day (at least a bookstore day) thanks to being elbowed aside by better known heroes and authors. It's bad enough movie makers recycle characters and plots, but it seems a shame when book publishers do it.

Yes, I can understand hankering and hungering for more of characters one's grown to love. Perhaps for this reason and because it's not my chosen genre, I'm less critical of classic romance characters resurfacing than I am of mystery reprises. Recycle the Janes (Austen and Eyre) but don't touch Marple!

(Romance fans might be interested to learn new Jane Austen novels are in the pipeline including updates of Emma and Pride and Prejudice. And for the particular attention of our friend Travis Erwin, not all fans are pleased one of those authors is male, Alexander McCall Smith.)

If anything, romance fans are even more engaged and critical. You might remember the harsh criticism of Scarlett, the sequel to Gone with the Wind. The music field witnessed bitter, even vicious comments about Hayley Westenra covering Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights. While I rarely prefer remakes to the originals, I compliment Bush's creative genius but I find her little-girl performance a bit shrill for my ears, although I seem to be an exception.

Solar Powered

Okay, I confess a bit of tongue in cheek (cheeky lad, that!). There is another way: I very much like the Solar Pons stories. August Derleth was such an admirer of Sherlock Holmes, he wrote Conan Doyle for permission to pick up pen and continue the series. Doyle declined, but not to be entirely put off, Derleth invented the great detective, Solar Pons.

The character became so popular, that when an edition came out that edited some of the Americanisms and timelines, the fan base reacted harshly, and an omnibus correcting the corrections soon followed.

But here it gets curious: A few years after August Derleth died, British author Basil Copper began writing further Solar Pons stories. In other words, Copper wrote pastiches of Derleth's pastiches! (And to be perfectly clear, Basil Copper was the editor who'd corrected Derleth's occasional Americanisms.)

Bonding with Fans

Only recently, we learned Jeffrey Deaver was engaged by the Fleming estate to write an 'official' new James Bond novel. Deaver, an American as you know, received not unpleasant mixed reviews for his effort, some positive, some not so much but they were better received than his immediate predecessor, Sebastian Faulks (who rather sounds like a Bond bad guy). As some have pointed out, Deaver is a better writer than Ian Fleming was, but critics are tough when it comes to capturing the essence of a character.

Deaver wasn't the first American appointed to write official 007 tales– that was novelist Raymond Benson– but I was surprised to learn we're about to see another new pastiche, this one by British writer William Boyd.

Wait, I'd be remiss if I failed to mention Samantha Weinberg's chicklit trilogy, The Moneypenny Diaries. And I should mention internationalism works both ways: Irish author John Banville, writing under the name Benjamin Black, is channeling Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.

James Bond is hardly the only character brought back to life. I do my best to ignore the Batman-like parody of Sherlock Holmes that Robert Downey, Jr came up with. But other works have either arrived or are on the way.

British children's novelist Anthony Horowitz was licensed to write a new 'official' Sherlock Holmes with an Edith Wharton sounding title, The House of Silk.

Bourne Again

Apparently Robert Ludlum's estate didn't feel the Bourne Trilogy satisfactorily wrapped up the series. They've authorized yet another retake called The Bourne Dominion by Eric Van Lustbader.

And finally, we return to Agatha Christie, not Jane Marple but Hercule Poirot. You may remember Christie hoped to prevent pastiches following on her novels, but her estate had other ideas. They've contracted with writer Sophie Hannah to produce a new novel featuring the egg-headed Belgian detective.

While I may criticize errant pastiches, one parting thought occurs to me: Wouldn't we authors like to reach that pinnacle, one where readers love our works so much, they can't get enough even after we're gone?

20 September 2012

Playing Detective

by
Deborah Elliott-Upton

Though it's not politically correct, I have a strong affection for the hard-boiled novel detective of yesteryear.

Phillip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Mike Hammer keep me turning pages, wondering what it'd be like to be their Girl Friday (or any other day of the week.)

Women wanted them and men wanted to be like them.

Ian Fleming's James Bond character may have been the last of their kind. It seems most of our heroes in fiction today are showing their softer side. And for me, it just doesn't ring as true a hero.

Before you jump to conclusions, I am not some hater of the Feminist Movement. I believe in equal rights and that women detectives can be just as smart as the male detectives. I read and write about several women investigators, police officers and amateur sleuths. I just am not appreciative when women aren't allowed to be women and men men whether it be in real life or between the covers of a book or magazine.

I guess I like characters to be as real as possible just like my friends. I want them to react without thinking what people will think about them if they do. I want them to go with their gut instinct, go with their street smarts and figure out who the bad guy is and where to find him because they have brains to do so instead of someone feeding them information or a computer telling them what to do.

There is something about the 1930-1940's era. The clothes were appealing. Women wore billowing skirts that showed off their waists and legs. Men in hats (NOT baseball caps) just looks commanding. A man in a fedora is not overlooked, especially when he is in a trench coat. (Yes, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca gets my vote for a real man's man. He isn't really handsome, but a woman knows he is going to take care of her.) And while we're at it, let's discuss Ingrid Bergman in her own hat and trench coat in that movie. She didn't need Rick to save her either. They were equals and neither of them were namby-pamby. Emotional when they heard Sam play it again? Definitely, but that's part of the magic, isn't it. They touch our hearts because they are so darn real.

In the hard boiled stories, the men were sexist. They were also sexy as hell. My opinion is it took a strong woman to get them, keep them and make them happy.

There were two types of women populating these stories:

1. long-legged, voluptuous beauties who came on stage as a damsel in distress, but who could turn the tables on the detective in a New York Minute and become their adversaries

and

2. the long-legged, voluptuous beauties who had a heart of gold, could type as well as dress their wounds. They were usually the girlfriend/secretary who waited endlessly for their "guy" to figure out she was the one for him.

In the real world, everyone probably looked like the people living on Walton's Mountain, but that's what fiction does for the reader in transferring him away from the regular and straight into the glamorous life of a detective. (Real life detectives probably read mysteries for the same reason.)

Okay, so I said I want the characters to be real, but not so real that they don't offer me an escape from the day-to-day routine. If I am reading about a cop, I visualize a Bradley Cooper, not so much a Seth Rogen. 

I also believe women can be just as dastardly as men when it comes to crime. I actually welcome female sleuths as long as they are as smart, savvy and as sexy as I wish I were. Bring it on, Wonder Woman (who never had to stomp on a man just to prove her worth – although she certainly could have.)

I like Katniss from Hunger Games who had skills, bravery and the foresight to pay attention and learn from her mentor. I like Indiana Jones when he isn't standing in a classroom where he seemed less sure of himself. Give him a whip and let him loose.

I like to read and I am in search of a great old-time detective story that will take me away from the kid gloves approach of too many authors trying to make everybody happy.

Is that too much to ask?

27 October 2011

The Death of the Detective


by Janice Law

One of the sad facts of life is that relationships sometimes go bad. Out in the real world the old staples of greed, lust, and anger usually do the trick, with pride and sloth in the wings as needed. In the literary world, boredom seems to be the key, as writers cast out characters who have brought them pleasure and, occasionally, both fame and fortune.

The most recent victim of authorial malice is Kurt Wallander, the gloomy but persistent Swedish detective, who has fought off both depression and diabetes to solve complex crimes in Ystad. Henning Mankell has brought the series to a believable but cruel end with The Troubled Man, saddling Wallander with a modern fate worse than death, when he could have retired the poor man to a little time with his charming granddaughter.

Well, Mankell, who was obviously very ready to end the series, must know his mystery history. Detectives of the fictional sort, who live a precarious existence between their creators' little grey cells and the printed page, have proved to be surprisingly durable.

Consider the most famous of them all, Sherlock Holmes. Despite his immense popularity, his creator grew tired of him, believing that his adventures took time from what Arthur Conan Doyle considered the more important historical novels. Holmes had to die, and, given his intellect and his stature in the profession, he could have no ordinary death. Doyle settled on sending him over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, caught in a death grip by his nemesis Professor Moriarty.

As Doyle's mother had predicted, the legion of Holmes' fans were not amused, and in 1901, Doyle relented, returning with one of the best of the novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Moriarty had drowned, not Holmes. The detective had faked his death to elude other enemies, a twist so convenient that it doesn't take a Freudian to wonder if Doyle had not picked a fate for Holmes that left just a little wiggle room.

The list of resurrected detective (and thriller) heroes does not end with Holmes. Baroness Orzy's Old Man in the Corner was favored with a disappearance, not a death. And just as well. He returned for several dozen more adventures after his reporter friend assured us that she had never seen him again.

As befits a super secret agent, James Bond made an even more triumphant return from what looked like certain death. Whether or not Ian Fleming had grown weary of James Bond, he nearly dispatched him with a kick from Soviet spy, Rosa Klebb's poisoned shoe. For a time, 007 lingered near death, but, to the immense profit of what became the James Bond movie franchise, he recovered. Thanks to a core of thriller writers and movie impresarios, Bond has easily survived his creator's own demise.

Agatha Christie, she of the perfect plots, left no room for error when she dispatched Hercule Poirot. Indeed, thinking ahead, she killed Poirot off fairly early in her career but saved the novel in which he dies for her extreme age. Curtain was a big hit late in her career, and fans, who had enjoyed decades of his adventures, did not storm the literary barricades to bring him back.

Of course, there are writers of greater mercy - or greater ambivalence - who do not cry 'off with his head' quite so quickly. Dorothy Sayers was so fond of Lord Peter Wimsey that she spared his life and took what might be called the Romance Writer's Option. After many delays and tribulations, she married him to Harriet Vane, the love of his life and, following Busman's Honeymoon, sentenced him to domestic felicity.
A few short stories reflect his happiness with his wife and family but though pleasant, they do not rival the novels. Happiness, it seems, is not a requirement for a detective, and a happy marriage seems a positive detriment to the private eye.

Maybe that's why I finally retired Anna Peters, who had seen action in eight novels, and who, somewhat incautiously, I had aged along with myself. Being tenderhearted, I disliked the thought of killing her, but I felt written out and, easily bored, I disliked doing the back story that each new novel seemed to require. Besides, as we got into our fifties I could see trouble coming for a woman of action. She could get killed or she could turn into Miss Marple.

Marple having already been done to perfection, I took the modern tack of having her sell her now successful Executive Security firm to an eager young businessman, Skipper Norris, formerly an NFL quarterback. Norris had a small part in Crosscheck, the last of Anna's adventures and rather to my surprise, he was negotiating to buy the firm by the end of the novel.

I think I can say he saved her life. In any case, she has not reappeared in the neurons. I imagine she is occupying herself pleasantly around the art world with her artist husband, perhaps repairing her neglected education, and solving minor crimes that she does not need to confide to me.