Showing posts with label 1920s. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1920s. Show all posts

08 July 2020

Widdershins


People have commented about what kind of entertainment is appropriate - if appropriate is even the word - for this odd time. Do we embrace it, Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, or Camus, or turn to escapism? Conventional wisdom has it that screwball was so popular during the Depression because it didn't reflect actual living conditions. On the other hand, during the polio epidemic, there was a brief vogue for the iron lung as a story element. Noir mirrors a specific postwar unease, which overlaps Cold War nuclear anxiety. Kiss Me Deadly or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Godzilla is the atomic metaphor writ large and reptilian.

I seem to be in retreat, myself, falling back on comfort food. Instead of post-apocalyptic, I set sail instead with Dorothy Sayers and her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.

Now, right up front, let's admit some of these are pretty lightweight. Whose Body?, the debut, is contrived and gimmicky. Clouds of Witness is stronger, mostly because the stakes are higher. Unnatural Death seems labored, to me, and basically unconvincing - although it introduces the estimable Miss Climpson. I don't think Sayers (and Wimsey) really hit their stride until The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and I think also this is because Bellona is to some degree about the effects of the Great War on Wimsey and his generation.

Sayers wrote novels of manners; contrivance is less important than character. Wimsey is himself nowhere near the foppish dilettante he affects to present - this is a Scarlet Pimpernel device. (You can easily imagine Leslie Howard in the part, deceptively languid.) Wimsey was a major in the Rifles, and was invalided out. There's a scary moment in Whose Body? when he imagines hearing German sappers digging below, and Bunter has to talk him down and put him to bed. The relationship between Wimsey and Bunter is the spine of the stories.

The other thing we have to acknowledge, which for some readers could be a deal-breaker, is that the language of the period singes the present-day ear. You remember that the books started in the 1920's, so astonishingly, they're almost a hundred years old. This isn't to apologize for Sayers' vocabulary, or rather, the accuracy with which she reports the vocabulary of the British class structure. She doesn't necessarily share their prejudices, but you doubt she's inoculated against them. Then again, Wimsey seems to be playing a part, 'Lord Peter' a kind of self-parody, so how much of this is affectation? It's hard to distinguish between the narrative conventions and Sayers' personal feelings. She herself was apparently quite astonished when somebody suggested anti-Semitic tropes in her work.

The three strongest books are the late-runners, Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors, and Gaudy Night. Murder Must Advertise because it's so effectively mannered - as a novel of manners ought - and because Sayers makes fun of her own successful career as an advertising copywriter. The Nine Tailors because the mystery is so elegant, the bell-ringing so exact, and the surrounding fen country so beautifully evoked. Gaudy Night is an outlier, granted, because it's of course Harriet's book, not Peter's, but the atmospherics are extraordinary, overheated and claustrophobic.

I also recommend The Documents in the Case, which is a standalone, without Wimsey, but the forensics reveal at the end is worth it all by itself.

The other thing about the language in the books, though, is how much it represents a world of the past. Not the late Victorian era of Holmes, but a time we think we can almost reach, from our own experience. Not that many degrees of separation. The period between the wars could be our parents, or theirs. You remember hearing an expression, as a kid, that made no sense whatsoever, because the context belonged to a previous generation. "Clean your plate," my grandmother might say, "think of those starving children in Belgium." Her reference is the First World War.

My personal favorite in the novels is widdershins, which means counter-clockwise, but Wimsey uses it in a particular way, "We do no harm in going widdershins, it's not a church." This puzzled me, until I unearthed a more sinister definition, invoking malign spirits. Originally, however, it seems simply to describe a cowlick or a case of bad hair. And there's the charm.  

18 November 2019

Local Color


When my late mother-in-law was very old, she developed a passion for Harlequin Romances. A booksellers dream, she ordered up what she called her “little books” by the case, and consumed them at the hair dresser, in the evening, waiting for a train or an appointment. They replaced her now arthritis-denied needlepoint for staving off tedium. She claimed that what she really liked about them was the local color. Her tastes ran to UK settings with local customs like afternoon tea (she had a sweet tooth) and a fair degree of pre-war quaintness.

Recently a couple of new mystery series have gotten me thinking, like my mother-in-law, about the charms of other societies, not just the geographic settings but the cultural ones as well. Sujata Massey has followed up her impressive debut, The Widows of Malabar Hill, about an ambitious young Parsi woman in 1920’s Bombay, with The Satapur Moonstone, set this time in a forested princely state outside the city. In both, the restrictions faced by middle and upper class women combine with carefully observed venues to add believable complications and challenges for her pioneering female lawyer and detective.

Perveen Mistry, apparently based on one of the author’s own female ancestors, has found a niche in the otherwise much-restricted legal system by catering to the legal needs of women in purdah. She, herself, moves relatively freely in her society, although possible pitfalls and dangers were vividly illustrated by her experiences in the initial novel.

In The Satapur Moonstone, Perveen is off in the hinterland, back when the term really had meaning. Parts of Satapur are cut off during the rainy season, with tracks only passable by palaquin – Massey gives a vivid account of the discomforts of this conveyance for both the passenger and the bearers – or on horseback. She also has to conduct delicate negotiations – neither too forward nor too deferential – with the males she encounters, including the Agent of the Raj, whose all-male station, she discovers to her dismay, is her only possible shelter.

The underlying mystery is neatly constructed, but I must confess that it is the curious customs, Perveen’s nicely-calibrated courtesy, and the picture of princely India with imperious royals, impoverished locals, and spectacularly crumbling royal estates that really bring enjoyment.

 If Massey’s Perveen Mistry is distinguished by her iron self control and her sensitivity to the different customs and values of Bombay’s heterogeneous community, Auntie Poldi of Mario Giordano’s Sicilian mysteries is off the charts in the opposite direction, a truly operatic character, or perhaps we should say, a Wagnerian character, because, though Auntie Poldi’s lamented husband was Sicilian, she is Bavarian. And larger than life.

In Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, she decamped to Sicily intending to commit suicide. Her plan involved large amounts of alcohol and seemed easy to accomplish given her weakness for drink. But Auntie’s suicide required a house with a sea view. Renovating this property, along with the beneficent interference of the Sicilian relatives, not to mention the salutary influence of a local murder mystery, keeps putting Poldi’s termination on hold. With her fabulous black wig, her caftans, her hobby of photographing handsome Italian policemen, and her appetites for food, drink, and romance, Poldi is an over-the-top character. And kind of nice to see, given that she is in her sixties.

 My own preference would be for Giordano to scale her back just a tad, but as described by her would-be-novelist nephew, she comes across as a genuine force of nature. Forces of nature being best enjoyed in smallish doses, it is fortunate that the Aunti Poldi stories have a great deal of Sicily as well as a great deal of the Bavarian diva. Sicilian food– abundant, apparently delicious and the pleasing obsession of half the characters – is a big player, as is Sicilian agriculture.

The novels are full of lovely groves of olives and oranges, flowers, ornamental palms and horticultural specimens, and vineyards thriving in the volcanic soil. In Giordano’s books, the island is a paradise, marred only by those so useful snakes, Mafioso and greedy multinationals, both of whom covet the island’s water supply in the newest, Aunti Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna. The plot is silly but the scenery is top flight. As my mother-in-law knew years ago, local color and a touch of the exotic have their place.

15 May 2016

The Girl with the Golden Gun


by Leigh Lundin

I’m seeing another woman. She’s stunning, vivacious, rich and generous, and… she can dance.

Miss Fisher’s fan dance

I told my girlfriend. Surprisingly, she doesn’t mind, which is saying a lot given her antipathy towards the Antipodes. Not our Stephen Ross’ New Zealand, mind you, that other country down under that does horrible things vis-à-vis soccer, rugby, and the purported game of (yawn) cricket, but that’s another story.

Anyway, about my new Australian darling…

But wait. First I’ll tell you why I longed to murder Lawrence Welk. I’ll tie this together, trust me.

Ever since I was a little kid, I despised that dastardly big band leader and his insipid Champagne Bubble Music™. His primary talent was outliving the really good musicians of the swing era, Count Basie, the Dorsey brothers, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Glenn Miller, King Oliver… pretty much everyone other than Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway. Welk’s idea of pop was pap and pablum for the masses. His flaccid phonographic flummery almost ruined the music of the 1920s and 30s for me, one of the most creative eras in the 20th century, and we're not talking Stravinsky, Schoenberg, or Shostakovich. Imagine a modern Clyde McCoy on trumpet, Tommy Dorsey muting a trombone, Viola Smith thumping tom-toms

Listen to this as you read on:


This piece was not written nearly a century ago during the 1920s flapper era… it was written practically yesterday by Greg J Walker for the Australian television production of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. I wouldn’t normally write about television mysteries when I haven’t read the original books, but I confess I’m doing exactly that. That’s how smitten I am and it’s all Dixon Hill’s fault.
original Phryne

MFMM is, if you haven’t guessed already, a period piece and to my eye… and ear… dazzlingly done. It features wealthy flapper Miss Fisher, christened with the appropriate given name of Phryne. (You may recall the suitably scandalous Phryne (pronounced like Friday with an ’n’ instead of ‘d’) from classical studies.)

The rest of the ensemble includes Phryne’s ever-fluid household, primarily comprised of Mr. Butler, Cecil, her ward Jane, and especially gentle Dot. The police presence includes newly minted Constable Hugh Collins and Inspector Jack Robinson.

The young constable is earnest although inexperienced, but the inspector proves highly intelligent and smart enough to give Phryne her head: Her charm, wit, money, and standing in society allow her to access social circles he can’t. As Phryne gives an entirely new meaning to ‘man eater,’ he’s sufficiently wise to let her do the romantic pursuing.

If you’re guessing characterization is key, you’re dead on. Phryne is engaging and entrancing. She carries a gold-plated revolver and is slightly reminiscent of Emma Peel. Inspector Robinson manages to be both firm and lenient with her and sensibly underplays his rôle. Phryne’s imposing Aunt Prudence– every family needs a matriarch like her– is an old dear who represents old school and old money. And then there’s Phryne’s companion/assistant, little Dot– she steals scenes and everyone’s heart.

Miss Fisher’s logo
Lady Detective

Before I stray too far, I must mention that Dixon Hill wrote the original article that intrigued me a year and a half ago. Curiously, two of my female friends expressed no interest in the series but one of me mates (oops, I've been overdosing) has started watching Miss Fisher from the beginning. Miss Marple she’s not. One review said Phryne ‘sashays’ through the stories, something a guy notices. Clearly we males find Miss Fisher fetching.

The historical detail is impressive. I admire many cars built in the 20s and 30s and Miss Fisher drives a beautiful Hispano-Suiza. Other viewers will applaud the costume of the era and Phryne wears at least a half dozen each episode. Indeed, one of the mysteries takes place in a house of fashion.

Sometimes writers imprint our present-day morals and values on the past, often imbuing a protagonist with a superior outlook. Not much of that shows through here– by nature Phryne is open-minded and the flapper era was daring, progressive, and sexually expressive. Thus Phryne’s physician friend Mac who dresses in men’s clothes comes off as genuine rather than contrived, not so much butch but a don’t-ask-don’t-tell person you’d like to know.

Miss Fisher’s Mysteries
The plots? They take second place to the characters and costuming, but even when you guess the culprit, you enjoy how Fisher and Robinson get there.

And the music? Most of it’s straight out of the 1920s and early 30s and thoughtfully offered in three albums (thus far). Wonderful stuff. I’ll leave you with Duke Ellington’s dirge, East St. Louis Toodle-oo.




Legendary drummer Viola Smith is still among the living at age 103½!

08 May 2016

Professional Tips– S S Van Dine


I’d planned a different column for today, but due to a technical glitch, we were unable to get an important part of the article working, the audio mechanism. We’ll try again at another date. In the meantime, enjoy the following advice by the author of the 1920s-30s Philo Vance series, S.S. Van Dine, pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright.

Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories

by

S. S. Van Dine

Stern Winter loves a dirge-like sound. — Wordsworth
The detective story is a game. It is more– it is a sporting event. And the author must play fair with the reader. He can no more resort to trickeries and deceptions and still retain his honesty than if he cheated in a bridge game. He must outwit the reader, and hold the reader's interest, through sheer ingenuity. For the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws– unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding: and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.

Herewith, then, is a sort of Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author's inner conscience. To wit:
  1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
  2. No wilful tricks or deceptions may be played on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
  3. There must be no love interest in the story. To introduce amour is to clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.
  4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It's false pretenses.
  5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions– not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
  6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
  7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader's trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded. Americans are essentially humane, and therefore a tiptop murder arouses their sense of vengeance and horror. They wish to bring the perpetrator to justice; and when “murder most foul, as in the best it is,” has been committed, the chase is on with all the righteous enthusiasm of which the thrice gentle reader is capable.
  8. The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
  9. There must be but one detective– that is, but one protagonist of deduction– one deus ex machine. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader, who, at the outset, pits his mind against that of the detective and proceeds to do mental battle. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn't know who his co-deductor is. It's like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
  10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story– that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest. For a writer to fasten the crime, in the final chapter, on a stranger or person who has played a wholly unimportant part in the tale, is to confess to his inability to match wits with the reader.
  11. Servants– such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like– must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. It is unsatisfactory, and makes the reader feel that his time has been wasted. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person– one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion; for if the crime was the sordid work of a menial, the author would have had no business to embalm it in book-form.
  12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.
  13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. Here the author gets into adventure fiction and secret-service romance. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance, but it is going too far to grant him a secret society (with its ubiquitous havens, mass protection, etc.) to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds in his jousting-bout with the police.
  14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. For instance, the murder of a victim by a newly found element– a super-radium, let us say– is not a legitimate problem. Nor may a rare and unknown drug, which has its existence only in the author's imagination, be administered. A detective-story writer must limit himself, toxicologically speaking, to the pharmacopoeia. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.
  15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent– provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face– that all the clues really pointed to the culprit– and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying. And one of my basic theories of detective fiction is that, if a detective story is fairly and legitimately constructed, it is impossible to keep the solution from all readers. There will inevitably be a certain number of them just as shrewd as the author; and if the author has shown the proper sportsmanship and honesty in his statement and projection of the crime and its clues, these perspicacious readers will be able, by analysis, elimination and logic, to put their finger on the culprit as soon as the detective does. And herein lies the zest of the game. Herein we have an explanation for the fact that readers who would spurn the ordinary "popular" novel will read detective stories unblushingly.
  16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action, and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude; but when an author of a detective story has reached that literary point where he has created a gripping sense of reality and enlisted the reader’s interest and sympathy in the characters and the problem, he has gone as far in the purely ‘literary’ technique as is legitimate and compatible with the needs of a criminal-problem document. A detective story is a grim business, and the reader goes to it, not for literary furbelows and style and beautiful descriptions and the projection of moods, but for mental stimulation and intellectual activity– just as he goes to a ball game or to a cross-word puzzle. Lectures between innings at the Polo Grounds on the beauties of nature would scarcely enhance the interest in the struggle between two contesting baseball nines; and dissertations on etymology and orthography interspersed in the definitions of a cross-word puzzle would tend only to irritate the solver bent on making the words interlock correctly.
  17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by house-breakers and bandits are the province of the police department– not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. Such crimes belong to the routine work of the homicide bureaus. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
  18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to play an unpardonable trick on the reader. If a book-buyer should demand his two dollars back on the ground that the crime was a fake, any court with a sense of justice would decide in his favor and add a stinging reprimand to the author who thus hoodwinked a trusting and kind-hearted reader.
  19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction– in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader's everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.
  20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective-story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality.
    1. Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect.
    2. The bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away.
    3. Forged finger-prints.
    4. The dummy-figure alibi.
    5. The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar.
    6. The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person.
    7. The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops.
    8. The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in.
    9. The word-association test for guilt.
    10. The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unravelled by the sleuth.
What are your thoughts?

15 March 2016

Resetting the Clock


Today, on the Ides of March, I’d like to welcome Janice Law, SleuthSayers emerita, mystery writer and painter, to guest blog. Janice was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1977 for The Big Payoff, her first Anna Peters novel. And in 2013, she was nominated for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Mystery for Fires of London, the first in her Francis Bacon series. She won that award the following year for its sequel, The Prisoner of the Riviera. She writes frequently for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and many others. So, take it away, Janice.

—Paul

*~*~*~*

Resetting the Clock

by Janice Law

(Many thanks to Paul D. Marks for kindly giving me his column space this week.)


My family always insists that I don’t take advice. This is only partially true. I rarely take advice immediately, but that’s not to say that I reject good ideas entirely. Case in point: my new Francis Bacon trilogy, which debuts April 5 with the opening volume, Nights in Berlin.

And what is this good advice that I’ve taken? To revise a character’s age downward. I did not do this with my former detective, Anna Peters, who retired with her bad back in her early 50’s. But I have now reset Francis’ age, from forty-something in Moon over Tangier, back to seventeen.

I had a couple reasons for doing this.

By the time he’d reached his early forties, the historical Bacon was on the verge of being both rich and famous, and some of his less pleasant, and more destructive, habits were going to become prominent. More important, he had lost Jessie Lightfoot (Nan in the books) and she, along with a knowledge of painting, was crucial to my understanding of his personality.

Characters one invents are almost by definition comprehensible. They may or may not be the fascinating, successful creations we all hope for, but the chances are good we’ll feel we understand them. If we don’t, if the character doesn’t in some way “make sense” to us, he or she will surely wind up in the out-take file or scooped up and eliminated by the handy delete button.

Historical figures are another matter. They are known, sometimes to the general public, sometimes only to specialists, but either way there certain irrefutable facts and circumstances about their lives that must be respected. To be honest, some of these facts are awkward. I personally love country living and all animals. Not so Francis. Music is important to me; Francis was tone deaf. And then there is his sexual preference – promiscuous gay sadomasochism – and his affection for the bottle.

Clearly, if one is going to write about a character this far from one’s own tastes, interests, and experience, a character, moreover, whose biography is known and available, one must find a way into his personality. My entrance to Francis’ psyche were via Nan (my mom had emigrated as a nanny and I grew up on a big estate that employed one) and his art (I’m a keen semi-pro painter).

With those two anchors, I’ve been able to navigate my fictional character’s taste for city life and rough trade, not to mention his reckless genius. Still, by the time I finished Moon over Tangier, I felt that the character I had been following for a dozen fictional years was complete, and I was ready to end the series.

But some interesting facets of the man’s life remained, especially his decision to close a reasonably successful design business (one capable of supporting both himself and Nan) and to embark on the precarious path of serious painting. That decision could, I saw, be the finale of a new trilogy.

What about the 600 or so pages needed before I could get to that point? Here, the real Francis’personal history came to my rescue. As a teenager and young adult, he lived in three different cities, each at a crucial and fascinating time: Weimar Berlin, where he was taken by a peculiar uncle – my character Uncle Lastings is, aside from his sexual habits and the circumstances of the German trip, a total invention; Paris at the end of the Roaring Twenties; and London in the Thirties after the party stopped.

Berlin and Paris were extremely important for the real painter’s later development. Bacon never went to art school and what little formal instruction he had in oil painting was picked up from one of his lovers. But in Berlin, he saw the cutting edge European art of the moment, Bauhaus design, Expressionism, Dada, and the New Objectivity as German artists struggled with the machine age and the devastation of the world war. For a young gay man, it also didn’t hurt that Berlin was liberated sexually in ways undreamt of in England.

Paris, like Berlin had galleries and new art, most importantly for Bacon, the works of Picasso, as well as the great public museums. Surrealism was in the air, and writers and artists from around the world had come to work – or to live the artistic life – in the metropolis. As for London, the art scene was tame compared to the excitements of the Continent, but London was, first and foremost, where his heart was. All his artistic life Bacon had trouble working anywhere but in the city along the Thames: he was a London man first and foremost.

Of course, three novels, even short ones, about the making of a painter are not going to set mystery lovers’ hearts a-flutter. Fortunately, history as well as biography now comes to the rescue. Berlin had gangs both fascist and Red; an enormous vice industry, fueled by the collapse of the post-war economy, plus public and private violence and misery of every sort.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-09249-0013, Berlin, alte Frau sammelt Abfälle
Paris had rich foreigners flinging money around and indulging their whims, while poor foreigners scraped for a living and struggled to recover from wars and revolutions further East. The underside of Parisian artistic creativity was imaginative larceny, including successful attempts to sell the Eiffel Tower. As for London, by the mid-Thirties, the city saw Hunger Marchers, waves of homeless, desperate immigrant Jews, British fascists like the Black Shirts, and ever-increasing fears of yet another war.

Who could let all this go to waste?

I declared Francis seventeen again and started Nights in Berlin.

21 November 2014

The Joys of Miss Fisher


Leigh's recent quips about cricket, coupled with Rob's mention of a "sexy cozy" triggered this post about Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, an ABC (um … that's: Australian Broadcasting Company, in this case) television series, which I've been watching on NetFlix.

Kerry Greenwood
This two-season (so far) TV series -- which I think could be accurately called a sexy and humorous cozy -- is set in Melbourne and based on a series of books by prolific Australian author and defense lawyer Kerry Greenwood.


Ms. Greenwood has penned no fewer than 20 books about Miss Fisher, plus several more novels spanning the YA, Sci-Fi and mystery markets.  If Wikipedia is to be believed, she's also a playwright.

The series' titular "Miss Fisher" is, point in fact, Miss Phryne ("Fry-nee") Fisher, a young upper-crust Australian woman of the 1920's who evidently served in the ambulance corps during the First World War.  It seems that the horror she encountered there stripped away her innocence, baring a wry and often humorous cynicism that I, as a viewer, find delectable.




In a word, I'd say she's "cheeky."
Delightfully so!




Dot quietly feels
Miss Fisher drives
far too recklessly. 
Having returned to Australia from England, in the first episode, young Phryne pronounces herself a lady detective.

And – stylish detective that she is – she even sports a gold-plated revolver, when needed. As well as a gorgeous Hispano-Suiza, which she drives at breakneck speeds.

The mysteries here are not mind-bendingly difficult to solve.



Nor do people running around with fancy metal-plated weapons usually entice me to watch a show.  Quite the opposite on both counts. But, if I'm honest, I'll have to admit I don't watch Phryne to test my wits against hers, as I might with a good Sherlock or Miss Marple. And, the fact is, the gold-plated revolver works in this case.  It's just the right weapon, with just the right feel of "decorative accessory," that would make it seem likely to strike the character's flair for the unique and stylish -- two things Phryne Fisher definitely personifies.  But, I really don't watch shows because of weapons.


So, why do I watch Miss Fisher?

Frankly, because the show is so much fun.

The characters are delightful.  First, there's Phryne's friend and assistant, Dorothy, often called Dottie or Dot.  Little Dot is devoutly religious, and frightened by technology.  One of my favorite scenes, which occurred in the first episode, involved Dot trying to answer a telephone.

.
As the young woman had earnestly explained to Phryne earlier, the priest at her church had told everyone that the electricity in the phone lines was building up in the center of the earth, and that – one day – one telephone connection too many would be made, causing the world to explode. Thus, as Phryne's phone rings, Dot, charged with answering it in Phryne's absence, is torn between doing her duty to her friend and employer, and her fear that answering the instrument might trigger a cataclysm that  destroys the entire planet.
The results had me rolling.

Then there's Phryne's female doctor friend: Dr. Elizabeth "Mac" Macmillan.  The good doctor dresses in men's clothing, as many women of the time actually did.  It had nothing, necessarily, to do with their sexual leanings; it was simply a style fad in the post-war years, according to my professor at ASU, when I took a class on this time period in Europe's history.

This taste in clothing may actually be associated with the view that women with bodies that looked "good for breeding" were thought of, at the time, as being similar to cows, or even "breeding machinery" (a connotation much distrusted in the wake of a war that saw the horrific effects of combat mechanization for the first time).  Consequently, "le garçon" arrived on the scene in Europe -- women whom the French called, literally: "the boy" because of their thin hips, flat chests and "masculine" behavior (such as smoking in public).  The wearing of men's clothing, according to one line of thinking, was an extension of such new social norms.

On the other hand, there is strong evidence (albeit off stage) that "Mac" may enjoy the company of women in her boudoir – something that bothers Phryne not one whit.  Mac also harbors a deep grudge against the male establishment, which would be perfectly understandable for a female M.D. of that time period. She's quick to anger, slow to trust, but is fast friends with Phryne, whom she evidently trusts implicitly.

Detective Inspector John "Jack" Robinson carries on a – so far – unrequited love affair with Phryne, though the femini Phryne doesn't appear to let this interfere with her bedroom gymnastics with other, more immediately willing, partners.  Robinson is quite conservative, but he clearly can't get this remarkable woman out of his mind.  And, the fact that she keeps showing up at the scenes of crimes that he's charged with investigating does little to alleviate this problem.

Robinson is assisted by Constable Hugh Collins, an innocent new police officer who soon begins dating Dot.


Add in Bert and Cec, two rather rough-around-the-edges manual
laborers with hearts of gold, who do some of Miss Fisher's heavy lifting, and Phryne's dowager aunt Prudence, along with a few other characters, and you've got a gold mine of humor, conflict and fun.

I highly recommend the show, if you haven't seen it already.

Phryne Fisher: Not only can she drive, and fly a plane…
She's also not afraid to fan dance!
See you in two weeks,
—Dixon

23 September 2013

Mystery of the Little House Books


Susan Wittig Albert
by Susan Wittig Albert


Our guest blogger this week is Susan Wittig Albert, who wants to introduce you to her latest, an intriguing literary deception.
— Jan Grape
Most of the time, I write mysteries. Some of my mysteries are contemporary (the China Bayles books), some historical (the Darling Dahlias 1930 series), and some biographical (the Beatrix Potter Cottage tales and the Robin Paige Victorians that I wrote with my husband). Most of these mysteries involve a crime of some sort, usually a murder, always involving some kind of criminal deception.

Recently, I wrote about a different kind of deception, a literary deception, in In A Wilder Rose, a true story about the writing of the Little House books. If you read those books as a child, you probably remember that they were about the Ingalls family's pioneer treks from Wisconsin to Indian Territory back to Minnesota, and then on to South Dakota. The named author of the eight books– beginning with  House in the Big Woods and ending with These Happy Golden Years– was the child heroine of the series, Laura Ingalls Wilder. By the time the books were published (1933-1943), Laura was in her 60s. While she had written poems for children and contributed paid newspaper articles to a farm journal, she had never written a book in her life. 

When I was a kid, I adored these books. But when I grew up and began to study literature (on my way to becoming a college English professor and an author of young adult and adult fiction), I puzzled over the mystery of how this elderly farm wife could produce eight perfectly-told books. Usually, this was explained by saying that Laura was a literary genius, and leaving it at that. But when I became a fiction writer myself and learned how truly difficult it is to write a book and get it published, I began to wonder how that worked for a 60-ish woman living on a remote Missouri Ozark farm in the 1930s. She rarely left the immediate area and had never been to New York. How in the world did such an isolated writer find an agent? Did she send out query letters with samples chapters? How did she know where to send them?

But the mysteries began to multiply when I discovered that Laura Ingalls Wilders had a daughter, Rose Wilder Lane--and that Rose (married and divorced) was a nationally famous journalist and one of the highest-paid women magazine writers in America. When I learned this single fact, all my mystery-solving instincts came alive at once and I embarked on a research project that led me to learn about Rose's life as a writer and a daughter.

I was helped along the way by William Holtz's 1933 biography of Rose. He argued that Rose was the
ghostwriter behind the Little House books, but he didn't provide much persuasive evidence of that claim. Following some leads from Holtz's book, I visited the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa where Rose's papers are held. In the archive, I found Rose's diaries from the years in which the Little House books were written as well as letters exchanged between Rose and her mother. When I studied the letters along with Laura's original manuscripts, I was able to put dates to the extensive work Rose did on the books and solve the mystery of how the Little House books came to be written and published.

The story in a nutshell: Flush with $10,000 from the sale of a book, Rose came home to the Wilder farm in 1928. She built her parents a "retirement cottage" on the property and she and her friend, Helen Boylston, moved into the old farmhouse. But then the crash came, Rose's magazine markets dried up, and she was stranded at the farm. Hoping to earn some money, Laura settled down to write her memoir, 328 handwritten tablet pages she called "Pioneer Girl."  Rose edited her mother's draft and sent part of it to an author friend in New York. An editor expressed an interest in it. When it was published in 1932, that part of "pioneer Girl" became Little House in the Big Woods.

Over the next ten years, Rose and Laura carved up "Pioneer Girl" into the eight Little House books. Laura would produce a handwritten draft, and Rose– using her experience as a published author– would rewrite it into publishable form. Laura would submit Rose's typescript under her own name, to George Bye, the literary agent who also represented Rose. Bye would send it to the publisher.  When the copy edited text came back, Rose did the work of checking it, and Laura submitted the approved text, again under her name. Each of the eight books in the series was done this way, without neither the agent nor the books' editors knowing that Rose was responsible for the finished submissions.

Why did Rose not insist on being acknowledged as a co-author or ghostwriter of Laura's books?

For one thing, she wanted her mother to be recognized as an author (her mother dreamed of achieving "prestige") and to have whatever royalties the books produced, although no one could have predicted in 1932, that they would produce a large fortune. The Wilders had no income except the few dollars they earned by selling milk and eggs in town, and an annual $500 "subsidy" that Rose sent them (the equivalent of about $6100 today).  Laura's small royalty checks of  $50 and $100 in those first years went a long way toward making the Wilders financially independent.  Finally, in 1938, the books earned enough so that Rose could discontinue her financial support.

But Rose also felt that ghostwriting "juveniles" (in a time when children's literature was not important) would not boost her writing career. In a letter, she wrote that writers of her stature didn't do ghostwriting unless they were desperate for money. She herself was desperate at the time, and ghostwrote five adventure books for the journalist Lowell Thomas, for $1,000 each. But it certainly wasn't something she was going to advertise. Hence the literary deception, which has persisted to this day.

The mother-daughter collaboration was an uncomfortable one, beset by the challenging issues of control and manipulation that troubled the relationship throughout both their lives. As Rose's journals demonstrate, the first three books were produced with difficulty. The two women managed best when they were apart, and in 1935 Rose left the farm. The remaining five books were written by mail: Laura mailed Rose her draft, Rose mailed Laura her rewrite, and Laura submitted the book to their agent.

As a reader of the Little House books, I am grateful to Rose for reworking her mother's stories and using her literary connections in New York to get them published. And I'm very grateful for her leaving a trail in her diary and letters, so that this puzzle could finally be solved, and I could write
A Wilder Rose, the story of Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the Little House books they built together.



A Wilder Rose is now available in print and ebook from Amazon and B & N. Check out the website aWilderRoseTheNovel.com if you click on the "Readers/Book Clubs/Libraries" link, you will find additional free 'backgrounders'.

25 June 2013

My Hit List


On May 25, John Floyd posted a list of his thirty favorite crime/mystery/suspense films, in no particular order.  John's theory was such a list reveals as much about the compiler as the subject being addressed, which I think is true.  My somewhat impromptu list, given below, reflects my love of forgotten and obscure titles and actors.  For the most part, I've left out comic mysteries, and I've also intentionally excluded most series films, which leaves out a lot of great ones.  I may address mystery film series in a future post.  So here are my thirty.  I hope you'll give one or two of them a try.
1920s


Bulldog Drummond (1929)

Ronald Colman's first talkie shows that not all early sound films were deer in the headlights of the new technology.  (Yes, he made a second Drummond, but are two a series?)

1930s


Murder! (1930)

Herbert Marshall in an early (and creaky) Alfred Hitchcock talkie.  Marshall lost a leg in World War I, but still had a long film career, as this list will show.

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

A pre-code version of the Hammett classic.  The Bogart version implies that Spade was a hound.  Ricardo Cortez demonstrates it, with the aid of Bebe Daniels and Thelma Todd.

Murder on a Honeymoon (1935)

The one true series mystery I let slip in, from the Hildegarde Withers series starring Edna May Oliver and one of the great comedy-relief policemen, James Gleason.

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936)

One of the best Thin Man imitations, because it has William Powell himself, plus Jean Arthur.

It's a Wonderful World (1939)

Really a screwball comedy, but it has a murder and James Stewart as a private detective.  Plus Claudette Colbert and the dumbest cop in the movies, Nat Pendleton.

1940s


Grand Central Murder (1942)

A nice little B picture by MGM, a studio whose B's look like A's.   Van Heflin leads a solid cast that includes another great comedy cop, Sam Levene.

Keeper of the Flame (1943)

The first and least typical of the Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn teamings has Citizen Kane pretentions but is really a murder mystery, with great early '40s atmosphere.

The Phantom Lady (1944)

Ella Raines sets out to clear her boss of murder.  Based on a Cornell Woolrich novel.

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)

Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet in a story by Eric Ambler.  Enough said.

Laura (1944)

Okay, they can't all be obscure.  Cop Dana Andrews falls in love with Gene Tierney's picture.  And who can blame him?

Green for Danger (1946)

English murder mystery set in a rural hospital during the V-1 barrage.  Alastair Sim (of Christmas Carol fame) plays a policeman who is both comic and clever.

The Killers (1946)

A Hemmingway short story as the launch pad for a noir mystery starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner.  The investigators are Edmond O'Brien and Sam Levene, this time playing it straight.

Crack-Up (1946)

An almost Hitchcock-grade mystery of a man, Pat O'Brien, who claims to have been in a train wreck no one else remembers.  Supporting cast includes film noir veteran Claire Trevor and Herbert Marshall, still soldiering on, but now in featured roles.

Deadline at Dawn (1946)

Great year, 1946.  This one's a little talky, but the talk is by Clifford Odets, so it's okay.  Susan Hayward stars.

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

A nice little film noir directed by and starring Robert Montgomery.  The solid supporting cast includes another noir stalwart, Thomas Gomez.

My Favorite Brunette (1947)

Right in the middle of the Philip Marlowe craze, Paramount came out with this burlesque of Chandleresque PI films staring Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, and Peter Lorre.

Out of the Past (1947)

Robert Mitchum in the film noir, with Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas.   If only Mitchum had played Philip Marlowe at this age.  More cult film than obscure film, but it had to make the list.

The Naked City (1948)

Maybe the first real police procedural, with Barry Fitzgerald, Don Taylor, and the real New York City.

1950s

Mystery Street (1950)

I thought we'd never get out of the '40s.  This little film is an early (but not the earliest) celebration of crime scene forensics.  It stars another Ricardo, Ricardo Montalban.

D.O.A. (1950)

Another cult film.  Good location work in LA and San Franciso and a great performance by Edmond O'Brien as a man trying to solve his own murder.  Gets me every time.

Cry Danger (1951)

Dick Powell as a parolee out to prove his innocence (or profit from his time in jail).  Nice location work in backstreet LA.  Rhonda Fleming and William Conrad in support.

On Dangerous Ground (1952)

Tough cop Robert Ryan meets blind Ida Lupino.  Great Bernard Hermann score.

23 Paces to Baker Street (1956)

Van Johnson, also blind, tries to solve a crime in London.  Vera Miles, one of Hitchcock's crushes, stands by him.

1960s

The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)

John Huston directed this murder mystery starring George C. Scott.  One of Herbert Marshall's last films, released an amazing thirty-three years after Murder!

Harper (1966)

Not exactly obscure, since it stars Paul Newman, but a solid PI film with a great cast, including Lauren Bacall.  Based on The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald.

Marlowe (1969)

For my money, a successful transportation of Philip Marlowe to the Summer of Love, starring James Garner.  Based on Chandler's The Little Sister.

1970s

The Carey Treatment (1972)

If you need a 1970s fix, this is the film.  Blake Edwards directed James Colburn and Jennifer O'Neill.  Based on Michael Crichton's A Case of Need.

Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

As I wrote in a recent post, this authentic little mob picture is the anti-Godfather.  It stars Robert Mitchum, a veteran of 1940s noir, and Peter Boyle. 

The Midnight Man (1974)

Another aging noir star, Burt Lancaster, starred in, co-wrote, and co-directed this mystery set on a college campus.  It also stars Susan Clark and Cameron Mitchell.

Did they make movies after 1974?  I'll look into it and get back to you.

20 September 2012

Playing Detective


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?