19 October 2015

Good Books and Old Movies, Part II


by Susan Rogers Cooper

I mentioned last post that I was teaching classes on the mystery from novel to film, and listed the books and movies I'd be teaching.  Rob Lopresti had done a little research on my first author, John Buchan, creator of "The Thirty-Nine Steps," and sent me his blog on him, which was quite interesting.

Buchan was a Scot, which might have had something to do with his grand descriptions of the Scottish countryside in "The 39 Steps," and began his adult life with a brief legal career, which he gave up for his real passion -- writing.  On October 19, 1915, John Buchan's first novel, "The Thirty-nine Steps" was published and was an immediate hit, selling 25,000 copies by the end of the year.  It tells the story of Richard Hannay, a South African visiting London who gets caught up in an espionage ring.   Jason Worden argued that Buchan actually invented a new sub-genre: the story in which a civilian gets chased both by the bad guys, and by the police who think he is the bad guy.  That paranoia made it perfect for Alfred Hitchcock, who not only filmed "The Thirty-nine Steps," but used a similar plot in two other movies.  Buchan wrote many more novels, including four about the plucky Richard  Hannay.  During World War I, his penchant for writing came in handy as he wrote propaganda for the British government.  He also served as Governor General of Canada until his death in 1940.  As Rob said, not bad for a thriller writer.

Learning all this about John Buchan made me want to learn more about the other writers I was featuring in my class.  Although John Buchan was the least known (to me anyway) of the four, I decided to delve a little deeper into the others.  I knew before hand -- from general knowledge and reading Lillian Hellman's wonderful book "Pentimento" -- that Dashiel Hammett had worked as a detective for the Pinkerton agency, was an alcoholic, and had issues with rejection -- at least according to Ms. Hellman. Delving a little deeper, I learned that Samuel Dashiel Hammett worked for the Pinkertons from 1915 to 1922, quitting due to the Pinkertons penchant for strike breaking. Almost all of his books and short stories were written in the 1920s and '30s, due in part to his bad health and his interest in political activism. He joined The Civil Rights Congress (the CRC), a leftist organization, and soon became their president. The CRC came under scrutiny in the late 1940s, and Hammett was subpoenaed to appear before a judge to name a list of contributors to a defense fund set up by the CRC for people accused of communist sympathies. He refused, citing the fifth amendment, and was sent to federal prison. Only a few years later, in the early 1950s, he was blacklisted by the HUAC and was unable to work as a writer from that point until his death in 1961. Raymond Chandler wrote in The Simple Art of Murder, “Hammett was the ace performer... He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of, The Glass Key, is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

And speaking of Raymond Chandler, one of my all time favorite writers, I was interested to learn that he didn't start writing until 1932 at the age of forty-four. A former oil company executive, he lost his job during the Great Depression and decided to take up writing. In a letter to his London publisher, Hamish Hamiton, Chandler explained why he began reading and eventually writing for pulp magazines: “Wandering up and down the Pacific Coast in an automobile I began to read pulp magazines, because they were cheap enough to throw away and because I never had at any time any taste for the kind of thing which is known as women's magazines. This was in the great days of the Black Mask (if I may call them great days) and it struck me that some of the writing was pretty forceful and honest, even though it had its crude aspect. I decided that this might be a good way to try to learn to write fiction and get paid a small amount of money at the same time. I spent five months over an 18,000 word novelette and sold it for $180. After that I never looked back, although I had a good many uneasy periods looking forward.”

In the introduction to Trouble Is My Business (1950), a collection of four of his short stories, Chandler wrote, “The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passage work. The denouement would justify everything. The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story on the other hand was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing. We who tried to write it had the same point of view as the film makers. When I first went to Hollywood a very intelligent producer told me that you couldn't make a successful motion picture from a mystery story, because the whole point was a disclosure that took a few seconds of screen time while the audience was reaching for its hat. He was wrong, but only because he was thinking of the wrong kind of mystery.”

Chandler also described the struggle that the writers of pulp fiction had in following the formula demanded by the editors of the pulp magazines: “As I look back on my stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published. If the formula had been a little less rigid, more of the writing of that time might have survived. Some of us tried pretty hard to break out of the formula, but we usually got caught and sent back. To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack.” And in a radio discussion with Chandler, Ian Fleming said that Chandler offered "some of the finest dialogue written in any prose today".
After Chandler's wife died, he began drinking heavily and slid into a severe depression. He attempted suicide but called the police before the attempt to tell them he was going to do it. He died in 1959.

My final author of course needs no introduction to anyone – mystery buff or not. Agatha Christie is almost as well known as Santa Claus. She published sixty-six novels and fourteen short story collections. She was initially unsuccessful in getting published, but in 1920 “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” was published, introducing the world to Hercule Poirot. The Guinness Book of World Records lists Dame Agatha as the best selling author of all time.

Much has been made of her ten day disappearance after her husband asked for a divorce. A much maligned movie, “Agatha,” was made – with a large disclaimer at the beginning – with a fanciful explanation as to what occurred. It has never been made public what happened in that ten day period.
In 1930 Dame Agatha married archeologist Sir Max Mallowan, whom she met during an archaeological dig. Their marriage lasted until Christie's death in 1976.

3 comments:

janice law said...

A good piece!
I'm sure you know Christie's comment on her happy second marriage. To paraphrase: I married an archeologist and the older I get the more interesting he finds me.

Melodie Campbell said...

Most interesting! Susan, I once taught a course at college: The Novel Goes Hollywood.
Janice, that quote is a hoot!

Leigh Lundin said...

I knew Hammett was accused of being a leftist, but I hadn't known the HUAAC had sent him to prison for refusing to testify. It was a frightening time.