Showing posts with label Dashiell Hammett. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dashiell Hammett. Show all posts

12 December 2017

Early Clues That I Might Become a Crime Writer

by Paul D. Marks

Since we’ve been on fire watch this past week when I’d normally be writing my post I’ve been a little scattered, so I hope you don’t mind a not-so-instant replay (hey, the networks do it over the holidays) of something I did somewhere else some time back. I’m sorry for not having a totally fresh post today, but most of you probably haven’t seen it.

One of the fires was fairly close to us and when it crested the mountain to our side, well, it was a little hairy. Amy left work early and stayed home a couple days just in case we had to evacuate. And, besides the big fires, another one did break out in a barn near us. Luckily they got that out before it spread. But it’s always a little nerve-wracking when the Santa Anas are blowing. Raymond Chandler famously said of those devil winds in Red Wind:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

And because I won’t be posting here again until after the New Year, I want to wish everyone Happy Holidays and a Terrific New Year. And thanks to Rob and Leigh, and the board, for hosting us here, and to all the SleuthSayers and everyone who’s come by to say hi and check things out.

So, here goes. Early warning signs that I would go down this wayward path:


Well, aside from the seven banks I robbed and my days as a benevolent hitman, sure, there were signs I might become a crime writer. But I was disappointed never to make it onto the FBI’s Top Ten.

And while the romance of being an outlaw is tempting, I think my temperament is better suited to that of “crime fighter” and crime writer. And not just because they rhyme.

I have a bit of a different take on how I came to be a crime writer. I was influenced by film noir and crime movies and later by the great writers from Hammett and Chandler on up. But because of certain things in my checkered past I think I’ve always had a strong sense of justice. And, while not getting involved in marches or crusades, I’ve tried in my own way to bring a little justice to this world on a micro level.

Someone who knew me well told me a long time ago that he thought I was like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. I don’t think he meant it as a compliment, but I’ll take it as one. As I tell my wife, who would rather avoid confrontation than fight, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but at least you have to stand up for yourself or others. And I don’t do this as much anymore. I guess I’ve mellowed with age and the sage advice of my wife. And also knowing that I can’t fight every battle.

At some point, I figured out one way that I could make justice prevail was to write about it. I think the below stories illustrate what I mean when I say I think I was born to be a crime fighter-writer.

Everything below has been abbreviated and abridged. Names changed to protect the innocent and guilty.

La Barbera’s/West LA:

clip_image002Many years ago (decades), my mother, grandmother and two brothers and I went to La Barbera’s (sadly no longer there) on Wilshire for dinner. Dad was out of town. We were seated in a booth. My youngest brother and me on one side of the booth. Mother, grandmother and middle brother on the other. The younger one was, well, young, squirming a little in the seat. The man in the next booth could feel him squirm through the seatbacks. He turned around and started yelling at my brother. Yelling and nasty! He finally turned around back to his companion. I didn’t like what he’d done so I started to mimic everything he said so he could hear it. I also started jamming my elbow into the back of the seat, so he could feel it on his side—yeah, I’m a little nuts, or used to be.

So he turned around, started yelling at my brother again. I said “I did it.” He didn’t respond, just turned away. But I couldn’t stop mimicking him. Well, to make a long story short, after some more back and forth, he ended up at our booth—pulling a knife on me. I had long hair and at that time it wasn’t cool with some people. And I thought everyone in the restaurant would de facto be on his side, especially the UCLA jocks sitting nearby on one side and a Marine in dress blues on another. But the jocks were on my side. One stood up and said, “I saw it, the guy pulled a knife on him [me].” And the Marine kept to himself. Eventually, we were moved to another side of the restaurant. Our original waitress came over to us, put her hand on my shoulder and thanked me for putting the guy in his place since he lived near the restaurant and came in every week with his sister causing trouble. But they couldn’t say anything since he was a customer. A couple other waitresses did the same. That made me feel good. But my mom and grandmother almost had heart attacks...

Dupar’s/Farmer’s Market:

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Once again out to eat. With grandmother again and whole immediate family this time, dad included. Man in the next booth was yelling at his kid. Nasty. Deriding him for everything. Humiliating. Young kid, maybe around 5, 6, 7. As I say, because of my background things like this get my back up. “Why don’t you leave him alone?” I said. Uh oh! Paul’s at it again, the family thinks. Tell me to shut up. Nobody pulled a knife this time and the man’s wife finally got him to shut up. But I couldn’t help myself. And when it was over, nobody at my table said anything to me for some time. I guess they thought here goes crazy Paul again.

The Bus/Westwood:

A friend of mine and I were in Westwood which, at the time was a hub of activity. Crowded sidewalks. Lots of street traffic. A bus pulled up to a bus stop. An old man was running for it—“running” as best as he could. The bus driver saw him but didn’t wait. I was pissed. So I ran down to the next bus stop a block or two away, beating the bus by seconds—he was in traffic. When the driver opened the door I said “Why didn’t you wait for that old man?” The driver told me to “&#%*#@$ off” and drove off. I didn’t win that one, but maybe the next time the driver saw an old man running for his bus he would wait for him. Nah, not that guy. —And, of course, I’m abbreviating our conversation, but that’s what it amounted to.

The LAPD/West LA

I can honestly say that I pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it. After all, here I am.
According to some people, if the LAPD is known for one thing it's for being trigger happy, ready to bust people up. Well, I'm happy to be able to say that I'm one of the few people to have pulled a gun on two cops and lived to tell about.
* * *
I was living in a four unit apartment building in West LA, a good neighborhood. Three downstairs units, one upstairs unit. I lived in the upstairs unit and had a view of the front door to the middle apartment downstairs from the top of the outdoor stairs. The woman who lived there had been attacked by a guy who tried to rape her. Her face was black and blue from the first attack.

The first time it happened, I was in my apartment (the only upstairs unit in a four unit building) and heard yelling and screaming. I went outside. Sally’s (name changed) boyfriend said something about her being attacked and the guy was in the alley. Her boyfriend and I chased him down the alley. The police came out in force, including choppers that lit up the alley like daylight. But they didn’t’ catch the guy.

Every night after the first I would search her apartment for her when she came home from work, if her boyfriend wasn’t there. I'd let her sleep on my couch. And then she started staying at her boyfriend’s place off and on, so I asked her to let me know if the cops were going to stake out her apartment. She said she would.

clip_image006Then, one night I’m watching “In a Lonely Place” on the tube (one of my favorite movies) when I heard helicopter noises. I grabbed my politically incorrect pistol, headed to my front door. I opened the door slowly and headed out to the landing at the top of my stairs. I watched a chopper circle above. Then, two scuzzballs came out of Sally's apartment at the bottom of the stairs. Greasy long hair. Big mustaches. Dirty clothes. The bad guy and a friend?

This was one of those situations where you don't have time to think. You have to act.

"Hold it," I said, aiming near-point blank at them only a few yards below. I could have dropped them both before they had a chance to turn around. "Turn around, slowly."

It was just like in the movies.

They did as ordered. Turned s-l-o-w-l-y.

"We're the police," the scuzzier of the two said. "Put the gun away and go inside."

I asked for ID and he badged me, cautiously. That was good enough for me. I went inside. So much for a trigger happy LAPD, though I wouldn’t try this today. It’s a whole different world.

Back in my apartment, “In a Lonely Place” was still on. And then the reality hit. Jesus, they were cops. And I had pulled a gun on them. The movie droned in the background. It could have been anything as far as I was concerned. I was freaking out. Visions of SWAT teams surrounding my apartment flashed through my mind.

The thoughts grew larger. What should I do? Sally hadn’t told me the police were staking out her place, as she’d promised. Now I’d pulled a gun on two cops. I called her apartment. One of the cops answered.

"Are you the guy from upstairs with the gun?" he said.

"Yes," I said.

"Man, you really made me nervous."

Not as nervous as I was when I found out you were the cops, I thought, but didn't say. He was cool. They weren't going to bust me. I had, indeed, pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it.
Sally moved out not too long after that. And, shortly after that the Westside Rapist was caught a block away. Not sure if it was the same guy who attacked Sally, but I tend to think it was.

***
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So there you have it. My crazy adventures seeking truth, justice and the American Way...and there’s more. But I guess that’s for another time. So when I started writing I naturally gravitated towards telling stories where the bad guys would get punished. What better genre to do that than crime writing. Of course, sometimes, especially in the noir genre, the bad guys don’t get caught, but then there is always the great hand of fate that I can bring down on them as I sit at my computer screen in my captain’s chair and steer my boat to exact revenge and justice in the world. …Okay, so I’m a little over the top but you get the idea.

I don’t do this much anymore – after all, someone might pull a gun on me. And I don’t think the bullets would bounce off my chest.

*** *** ***


Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com



04 April 2017

Cornell Woolrich: The Forgotten Man

by Paul D. Marks

Cornell Woolrich was one of the most popular writers of crime/mystery fiction in the mid twentieth century. He also wrote under the names William Irish and George Hopely. Today he’s largely forgotten at least on the written page. But I’m not going to talk about him as a writer per se. I’m going to talk about him as the hardboiled or noir writer who’s had more stories adapted for film than any other.

To give some idea of his popularity on celluloid, on IMDB there are 103 movies credited to him, including foreign movies. Chandler has 37. Hammett: 33. David Goodis 19. Mostly these are “based on” credits, but Chandler, Goodis and even Hammett actually wrote screenplays (the latter for Watch on the Rhine, not a mystery or noir, but a World War II propaganda flick).

The first movie based on a Woolrich story (writing as William Irish) was The Haunted House in 1928. The credit reads “titles,” so I assume that means he was writing the titles for a silent movie. The first flick credited to a story of his is Children of the Ritz (1929). The last movie listed on IMDB based on one of his stories is She’s No Angel (2002), based on I Married a Dead Man, which had been filmed several times before both domestically and in other countries. The American version was called No Man of Her Own (1950).

So 1928 to 2002 is a pretty good run, with over a hundred adaptations. And I suspect it’s not the end of his run.

Woolrich started out writing Fitzgerald-like stories, but found his niche in the mystery-suspense field, writing both short stories and novels. He spent some time in Hollywood but eventually returned to New York, where he lived in a hotel with his mother until she died, then he moved to another hotel. In the early days of his return to NYC he socialized with fans and MWA members. But alcoholism and the loss of a leg to gangrene because of a too tight shoe and the infection it caused, plus not going to the doctor soon enough, turned him into a recluse. A closeted homosexual, he spent the last years of his life alone and lonely. Nobody attended his funeral in 1968.

Here’s a handful of noir and mystery movies based on his work:

Phantom Lady, 1944: A man (Alan Curtis) and his wife have a fight on their anniversary. He takes a powder and picks up a woman in a bar. When he finally returns home he finds his wife strangled with one of his ties, the police crawling all over his place. And guess who’s the prime suspect? At first the only person who really seems to believe in him is his secretary, the bewitching Ella Raines. Curtis was seen by several people while out that night, but when Rains or the police talk to them they deny it. Eventually Curtis’ best friend (Franchot Tone) returns from South America (I hope I’m remembering this right) and Ella hopes he can help out. Noir icon Elisha Cook, Jr. has a great turn as a crazed drummer. A pretty good B flick, directed by Robert Siodmak.



Black Angel,1946: Blackmailer Mavis Marlowe is murdered. Kirk Bennet, a married guy with a loyal wife, is sentenced for the crime. His wife teams up with Marlowe’s ex-husband, an alkie composer and pianist, Dan Duryea, to try to find the real killer before the state executes her husband. Peter Lorre does a turn as a sleazy nightclub owner. Hey, it’s Peter Lorre, can the club owner be anything but sleazy? And any noir with Duryea is worth watching.



The Chase,1946: From the No Good Deed Goes Unpunished school of storytelling. Down on his heels World War II vet Robert Cummings returns a lost wallet to gangster Eddie Roman. Roman rewards him with a job as his chauffeur. Eventually Cummings volunteers to help Eddie’s wife, Michelle Morgan, escape her crazy husband. Will they get away to sail into the sunset together?

Deadline at Dawn,1946: A sailor wakes up with a stash of cash after a night of heavy drinking (hey, he’s a swabbie, what do you expect). With the help of dance hall girl Susan Hayward he tries to find the woman it belongs to, and does. Just one problem: she’s dead. He’s not sure if he did the deed or not. And now they only have a few hours to find out the truth before his leave is up.

Fear in the Night x 2, 1947 & 1956: A man (who should have been in outer space—DeForest Kelly) dreams he committed a murder in a strange mirror-covered octagonal room. He wakes up with unusual marks on his throat, blood on his sleeve. His cop brother-in-law tries to convince him that it was just a dream—but he’s freaking out. The cop, his wife, DeForest and his girl go on a picnic to a weird house in the woods…and find a mirrored room just like the one he dreamt about. What the hell’s going on?—I have to admit that, while I like all the movies here, I really love this low-budget flick. I’m not saying it’s even good. There’s just something I like about it. The sort of surreal aspect maybe. Remade as Nightmare (the title of the story it’s based on) with Edward G. Robinson and Kevin McCarthy in ’56. Almost an exact remake, but it lacks something, IMO, that Fear in the Night has.



The Window,1949: Woolrich’s version of the boy who cried wolf. It’s hot and sultry in the city, so 9 year old teller-of-tall-tales Tommy decides to sleep on the fire escape, but instead of doing it outside his apartment he does it at a higher one to get a better breeze. While there, he sees the Kellersons murder someone. But no one will believe him because he’s the boy who cries wolf. Well, the Kellersons believe him and they want to silence him...

Rear Window x 2 – 1954 & 1998: POSSIBLE SPOILER AHEAD. Forget the 1998 version, though it does have one unique thing. Christopher Reeve plays the wheelchair-bound photog played by Jimmy Stewart in the original. And he’s really confined to a wheelchair because of his fall off of a horse. That’s interesting, but the movie doesn’t touch the original. And for those out there who’ve never seen it, L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (Stewart) is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment because of a broken leg. He likes to spy on his neighbors in the voyeuristic way that Hitchcock loves so much (Oh, did I forget to mention this is a Hitchcock flick?) So he’s watching his weird, wild and sad collection of neighbors across the courtyard when he sees someone who looks suspiciously like Perry Mason murder his wife. He soon involves his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) and his nurse (Thelma Ritter) in trying to ferret out what happened. Rear Window is one of Hitchcock’s 1950s string of great and classic flicks that includes Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest and more.

Besides movies, Woolrich’s stories have also been adapted for various radio and television shows, including The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Suspicion, Thriller and Fallen Angels.

I picked this group of films from the huge selection of Woolrich adaptations because to one degree or another (not including the Rear Window remake) I like them all and would recommend them as decent adaptations of his work.

Woolrich was very successful, but ultimately lived a life somewhat like his stories, sad, friendless and abandoned. There’s something very noir about the way his life played out.

***

And congratulations to O’Neil, Herschel, B.K. and R.T. on their Derringer noms! Good luck!

And now for a little BSP:

I’m thrilled to announce that my short story, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. If you’d like to read it (and maybe consider it for other awards) you can read it free on my website: http://pauldmarks.com/stories/ 

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.


19 October 2016

The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down


by Robert Lopresti

While working on my recent column on alternate history I was looking at my collection of science fiction and noticed a book that took me back through the decades.  Out of this World, edited by Julius Fast, was published in 1944 which means that, even as old as I am, it was a used book when I got my hands on it, in my father's personal collection.  I was probably around ten and it was already an antique.  The copy I have now is not the one I had then, by the way.  I found it in a used book store a few years ago.  (By the way, Fast edited the book while serving during World War II, using material he found in army base libraries.  He also won the very first Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel.)

I have fond memories of this collection of fantasy stories.   There are stories by Saki, Robert Arthur, H.G. Wells, Lord Dunsany, and Jack London to name a few.  But what really knocked me out was my first encounters with the late great John Collier.  Collier was one of the great short story authors, a master of a certain kind of fantasy and mystery. His story "Witch's Money" (not in this collection) is on my list of top fifty crime stories of all time.  There are no witches in it: it's about the disaster that hits an Italian village when a comparatively wealthy American artist moves in.

Running across that book a few days ago inspired me to go looking for another one I found in my Dad's collection when I was at that same impressionable age.  I bought a copy over the web, and the shipping cost more than the book. 

The Pocket Mystery Reader was also published during the war, and in fact, this copy was owned by Sergeant Lawrence E. Hough of the U.S. Army in 1943.  (And I can tell you Sergeant Hough took much better care of his paperbacks than I  do.)

I remember reading my father's copy mostly because I recall Rex Stout's parody of Sherlockian scholarship, his famous speech to the Baker Street Irregulars entitled "Watson Was A Woman."  It's still funny.  So are the essays by P.G. Wodehouse and Stephen Leacock.

This book was my first exposure to Dashiell Hammett and his Continental Op.  ("The Farewell Murder," not one of his masterpieces.)  In fact, while there are tales by Gardner, Sayers, and Woolrich, the only one I remembered from fifty years ago was "The Price of the Head,"by John Russell, which I recalled as being brilliant.  However, I experienced one of the downsides of revisitng a favorite old book: On rereading I discovered it was racist trash.  Apparently my memory wrote a completely different story and attached it to Russell's brilliant ending.

There is a ton of casual racism in this book which reminds me that it was published around the time Rex Stout produced a one-night extravaganza on Broadway just for writers, directors and producers, with the theme "We can't fight racism in Europe and appease it at home."

I was even younger when I ran across the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories.  I thought I read the copy belonging to my sister Diane Chamberlain but she swears she never heard of it.  What I can't forget is "The Wonderful Cat of Cobbie Bean," a lovely tale by Barbee Oliver Carleton.  Cobbie gets a talking cat, which might not be so disastrous except Cobbie lives in Salem at the time of the witch trials...

Another book I dug up because of childhood memories was The Bulls and the Bees, by Roger Eddy.  It's a novel (memoir?) in a series of short stories, narrated by the astonishingly solemn voice of a child growing up in the twenties.  His father is a stockbroker and the boy's hobby is buying a single share of stock from different companies.  He has no idea he is "investing."  He thinks he's just buying interestingly engraved paper.  This leads to a crisis after the Crash in 1929.

This has gone on too long.  Maybe next time I will talk about childhood favorites I bought my daughter when she was a kid.

But what books call to you from your childhood?  And if you reread them was it a joy or a disappointment?

22 July 2016

The Thin Man Called

By Art Taylor

It's rare these days that I reread a story or book simply for the pleasure of it.

I do reread a number of things, I should stress, but almost exclusively because they're texts that I'm teaching in one or another of my classes (though perhaps there's some blurriness here, since I'm obviously assigning books on my syllabi that I enjoy or admire). This past semester, for example, I revisited—and marked up anew—several dozen stories and several novels, including works by classic writers Poe, Conan Doyle, Hammett, Chandler, Goodis, Highsmith and McBain (among many others) and books by contemporary authors Megan Abbott, Tana French, Mark Haddon, Cormac McCarthy, China Miéville, and Steve Weddle (also among others).

But picking up a book I've already read and rereading it solely for fun? with no syllabi or lesson plans on the horizon? That's a luxury that seems tough to afford, when my TBR piles are towering with books I sometimes feel like I'll never get to enjoy. (It's a common problem for all writers and readers, I'd think, that we acquire books faster than we read them—something hopeful about it maybe.)

Given all that, a recent vacation brought a couple of treats. First, our good friends Barry and Meg Teasley passed along a very nice copy of the 1965 edition of Dashiell Hammett's complete novels, a terrific gift in so many ways. Barry and Meg hosted a baby shower for us nearly five years ago before our son, also named Dashiell, was born, and they'd given the book to my parents more recently, but I only got it myself when visiting over Fourth of July.

The second treat? Spur of the moment, I started reading The Thin Man again—a book I haven't taught and therefore haven't read in a long while. Just a couple of chapters, just to reacquaint myself, right? Then a couple led to a few, and a few led to a few more, and pretty soon I was engrossed again in the characters and the story while other books—new books, unread books, at least one I needed to read for the coming semester—fell at least briefly by the wayside.

It felt like playing hooky.

It felt good.

(And I should point out: I've recently been reading Karen Huston Karydes' provocative new study Hard-Boiled Anxiety: The Freudian Desires of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Their Detectives, and her analysis about The Thin Man opened up some new perspectives on the book during this rereading—particularly her comments on the "two leveled" nature of the book, where she measured out both its jauntiness and frivolity on the one hand against its undercurrent of sadness, loneliness, and dissipation on the other. Proof that rereading, especially with age and with greater contexts, can reward with enriched insights.) 

What's interesting about all this: While it's rare for me to reread books for fun, there are a number of movies that I've rewatched—and, in fact, several movies that when I've caught them while flipping the channels, I usually settle in to watch the rest of them. I think of Unforgiven, for example, and then a handful of Hitchcock movies—Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest—and then a couple of silly comedies which never fail to please, both classic (Sabrina) and newer (Blast from the Past, Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You). But books? I'd be hard-pressed on that count.

I'm curious about others here. How often do you reread books? under what circumstances? and which books? And are you—like me—more likely to rewatch films than reread books? If so, why and which ones? 

Surely, with questions like that, I'll be adding even more titles to my TBR list—and my TBW list too, I guess!


10 June 2016

The Complete Continental Op: An Interview with Dashiell Hammett's Granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett

By Art Taylor


Dashiell Hammett created several of the best-known, most iconic characters in crime fiction: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key, and Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. But many of his short stories (mostly published in Black Mask) and his first two novels—Red Harvest and The Dain Curse—focused on another character: the Continental Op, an unnamed detective with the Continental Detective Agency. The character and the agency were both drawn from Hammett’s own career with the Pinkerton’s, and Nathan Ward’s recent book The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett has successfully argued that Hammett’s Pinkerton training informed not only the character and conflicts of these stories but also the style: “His Continental Op stories clearly evolved from the form of these Pinkerton reports,” Ward writes, citing those reports particularly for their “habits of observation, the light touch and nonjudgement while writing studiously about lowlifes.”

On Tuesday, June 14, Open Road Media and MysteriousPress.com will release eight e-books toward what will eventually become the complete Collected Case Files of the Continental Op, edited and presented by Hammett’s biographer Richard Layman and his granddaughter Julie M. Rivett. As Rivett notes in her foreword, the series marks “the first electronic publication of Dashiell Hammett’s collected Continental Op stories to be licensed either by Hammett or his estate—and the first English-language collection of any kind to include all twenty-eight of the Op’s standalone stories.” Additionally, the complete series will include the never-before-published “Three Dimes,” a fragment of an Op story from the Hammett archive.

Rivett and Layman have worked together on many projects, including The Hunter and Other Stories, Return of the Thin Man, The Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett: 1921-1960, and Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers. Rivett speaks widely about her grandfather’s work and legacy, and I’m honored to welcome her to SleuthSayers to discuss this landmark project.

ART TAYLOR: Hammett’s characters Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles have surely entered the wider cultural consciousness more completely, but the Continental Op might arguably be the more seminal character in terms of the development of the genre. What do the Op and his stories offer crime fiction readers that The Maltese Falcon, for example, doesn’t?  

JULIE M. RIVETT: The Op is important and, yes, seminal.  Ellery Queen said he could have been Sam Spade’s older brother, equally hardbitten, but with perhaps less spectacular presentation. The Op’s narratives are workmanlike, realistic, and procedurally detailed. His plainspoken wit is at least as dry as Spade’s. It’s a shame he’s not memorialized in film the way that Sam and Nick and Nora are. I think that’s the main reason the Op is less well known to contemporary readers.

One of other the big differences between the Op and Spade, Nick, and Ned Beaumont is that he’s a company man, on the payroll for the Continental Detective Agency, modeled on Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, where my grandfather worked for some five years, off and on. Spade and Nick Charles are independent sleuths. Ned Beaumont functions as a detective, but in fact he’s a political operator inadvertently entangled in a murder. Professional standpoint makes a difference in how each one perceives his professional obligations. The Op is the only one who has to answer to a boss, the Old Man.  He fudges his reports at times to cover up some less than conventional tactics, but, still, he’s loyal to the Agency and he loves his job. Or he is his job. That idea of profession as identity runs all through my grandfather’s work. The Op tales offer an extended narration of workaday professionalism in action.

Several collections in recent years have featured Continental Op stories, notably 1999’s Nightmare Town and then more extensively the Library of America’s Crime Stories & Other Writings in 2001, but this is the first time all of the standalone Op stories have been gathered together in series form. What might readers learn about the Op or about Hammett—and what did you yourself take away—from reading these complete case files, finally gathered in chronological order?

Any careful reader will see the progression in Hammett’s work. The stories grow longer and more fluid, the Op more emotionally vulnerable, the resolutions keyed more to justice than law. There’s evidence of both character and story development. Rick does a good job in his introductions of describing shifts in the degrees of violence that take place under Hammett’s three editors at Black Mask—very little under George W. Sutton, with scanty gunplay; much more under Philip C. Cody, the Op tempted to go blood simple; and ample well-developed action under Joseph Thompson Shaw, purposeful as well as thrilling.  

I’m drawn to that biographical potential of the collection, of course. The complete run of stories offers a fascinating opportunity to contextualize the Op’s narratives within Hammett’s real life story. My grandfather starts with a novice’s attention his editors’ demands—thrilled to be published, but also intent on keeping food on the family table. He hits his stride with some great stories, but then there’s a break, when he walks away in anger, deciding to give up on fiction. Then he’s back, with stories more confident, complicated, and ambitious. He’d realized his talents and was ready (with Joseph Shaw’s support) to challenge pulp- and crime-fiction norms. And then the sea change in February of 1930—the final Op story published in Black Mask, the same month that The Maltese Falcon was released by in hardback by Knopf. With that, my grandfather was done with the Op and off to explore other possibilities.


A few of the Op stories have been elusive except in much older editions—“It” and “Death and Company,” specifically. Why have those not been republished more recently, and do you anticipate they will be among the standout gems here for readers who are already fans?

The Op’s publishing history is complex—even frustrating. I don’t know why those two stories have been overlooked for so long. There is a gruesome tinge to each, but nothing sufficient to repel Hammett readers. I certainly can’t explain Lillian Hellman’s choices while she controlled the estate or the decisions made by her former trustees after her death.  I do know that contracts let under their tenure made the publication of Complete Case Files extraordinarily difficult. It seemed ridiculous to me that the Op’s tales couldn’t be collected altogether! Rick and I are both current trustees for Hammett’s literary property trust (under Hellman’s will, no less) and even with that, it was a struggle to assemble all the pieces. We’re hugely pleased and proud of that we were, finally, able to bring together the Op’s complete short-story canon.

“It” and “Death and Company” were last available, alongside many other Op stories, in paperbacks edited by Ellery Queen between the early 1940s and early ’50s [the cover to one of those paperbacks can be seen at left]—but you note that the stories in those editions were presented in  “sometimes liberally re-edited form.” [Editorial note: Don Herron at “Up and Down These Mean Streets” has been less diplomatic, using the word “butchered,” and Terry Zobeck has meticulously charted the editorial changes to “Death and Company” here.] In the newly collected case files, do you and Layman restore these and other stories to their original form?

Yes, absolutely! Rick and I worked from copies of the original publications for each story—26 in Black Mask, and one each in True Detective Stories and Mystery Stories magazines. Our only changes are corrections to obvious typos—which were more common than you might imagine, especially in the earlier editions of Black Mask. The proofreading was grueling. But we wanted to stick as close to Hammett’s originals as possible and when in doubt, we left questionable text unaltered. Unlike Ellery Queen, our first principle was “do no harm.”

Does each of the eight volumes feature its own individual introductions by you and Richard Layman?

Here’s how the organization works. Two or three stories are clustered into each volume. Then the volumes are collected into three sections: the Early, Middle, and Later Years.  Rick wrote introductions for each of the three sections based on Hammett’s experiences under his three editors at Black Mask, George W. Sutton, Philip Cody, and Joseph Thompson Shaw. A Sutton, Cody, or Shaw introduction opens each volume, as appropriate. My foreword traces the publishing and cultural history of the Op from creation through this most recent publication.  Every volume opens with the same foreword. A separate headnote introduces the never-before-published Op fragment, “Three Dimes.”

Rick and I have worked together since 1999 and this is our fifth published collaboration. We’ve learned to divvy up the editorial tasks. Each book has had its own rewards and challenges. In this case, in addition to constraints imposed by previous contracts, we’re negotiating the relatively new world of e-publication.  It’s complicated. For now, we’re releasing eight volumes, which include 23 stories. We hope to release the remaining handful and the fragment later this year.

“Three Dimes” promised to be a real highlight of the collection here. What more can you tell us about it?

The fragment comes from Hammett’s archive at the University of Texas at Austin. It is unique—a 1,367-word partial draft, in the classic Op style, that leaves us wondering what would have happened next and why the story was set aside unfinished. My grandfather, who saved very little, saved this, along with chapter and character notes, which will be included. I think that rare glimpse of Hammett’s process is going to be a real thrill for fans. Watch for it! 

17 December 2015

Christmas is Almost Always Murder

by Eve Fisher

Seriously, Norman Rockwell has a lot to answer for. All those pictures of Mom and the turkey, the family gathered around... All those "Old Home Folks" stories about the perfect Christmas, and how sweet it was when children were grateful for a penny, and grownups didn't get anything, but they all ate like horses and loved it. All those Hallmark Channel Christmas movies (I mean, really, 24 hour a day Christmas movies starting on THANKSGIVING??????) Okay, back to those, where it's all about love, love, love, love, love, with red and green and what is the deal with all those movies about a "Prince/Princess for Christmas"?

I really am turning into a grinch, right?

Wrong.

We're No Angels - 1955 - poster.png I love a good Christmas movie or story, but I take my entertainment with a little salt, thanks. Or at least a shot glass. And a little murder just adds to the fun.

Here's a list of my favorite Christmas movies, the ones my husband and I watch every year, and yes, we know the lines by heart:

We're No Angels, (1955), Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray, and Basil Rathbone. For my 2012 take on this movie, complete with synopsis and begging everyone to go to Netflix and get it immediately, see here: http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2012/12/were-no-angels.html

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Monty Wooley, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, and more. The worst house guest in the world is also the most erudite, witty, arrogant, and popular man on the planet. Sheridan Whiteside was Kaufman and Hart's masterpiece (especially as played by Monty Wooley), based on (of course) the Algonquin Club's founder, leader, gatekeeper and spoiled child, Alexander Woollcott.
Jimmy Durante, Mary Wickes (in her breakthrough screen role), and Monty Wooley
The play - and the movie - are chock full of characters who were based, almost libellously, on real people. Banjo = Harpo Marx. Beverly Carlton = Noel Coward. Lorraine Sheldon = Gertrude Lawrence, of whom Beverly Carlton says, in my favorite movie line of all time,
"They do say she set fire to her mother, but I don't believe it."
And Mary Wickes as Nurse Preen, who has to nurse the impossible Sheridan Whiteside:
"I am not only walking out on this case, Mr. Whiteside, I am leaving the nursing profession. I became a nurse because all my life, ever since I was a little girl, I was filled with the idea of serving a suffering humanity. After one month with you , Mr. Whiteside, I am going to work in a munitions factory. From now on , anything I can do to help exterminate the human race will fill me with the greatest of pleasure. If Florence Nightingale had ever nursed YOU, Mr. Whiteside, she would have married Jack the Ripper instead of founding the Red Cross!"
Reborn (1981). Directed by Bigas Luna, originally titled Renacer, "starring" Dennis Hopper as the snake-oil selling Reverend Tom Hartley, Michael Moriarty as Mark (a thickly-veiled Joseph), and (I kid you not, spoiler alert!) a helicopter as the Holy Spirit. While it has horrible production values, and was obviously made (in Italy, Spain, and Houston, TX) on rather less than a shoestring (I think all the money was spent on the helicopter), this still may be one of the most interesting versions of the Nativity that's ever been done.
"You're going to have a baby? I can't have a baby! I can't even take care of myself, much less a baby!" Mark.

The Thin Man (1934). William Powell and Myrna Loy. Machine-gun dialog, much of it hilarious. A middle-aged peroxide blonde and an incredibly young Maureen O'Sullivan. More drinking than anyone would dare put into a movie today, at least not without a quick trip to rehab for somebody, especially Nick Charles. And mostly true to Dashiell Hammett's plot.
"Is he working on the case?" "Yes, a case of scotch!"

Okay, a quick break for myself and the grandkids: A Muppet Christmas Carol (with Michael Caine), A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (narrated by Boris Karloff). Love, love, love them ALL.




Okay, back to more adult fare:

Listed under secret pleasures, Love Actually (2003), mostly because I start laughing as soon as Bill Nighy starts cursing. (What can I say? I'm that kind of girl.)
"Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don't buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!" Truer words are rarely spoken in a Christmas movie...

Totally NON-secret NON-guilty pleasure: Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988). Rowan Atkinson (Blackadder), Tony Robinson (Baldrick), Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent and Miram Margolyes as Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, and Robbie Coltrane as the Spirit of Christmas...
"Mrs. Scratchit, Tiny Tom is fifteen stone and built like a brick privy. If he eats any more heartily, he will turn into a pie shop." God bless us, everyone.
Scrooge (A Christmas Carol) (1951). Alistair Sim. This is my favorite version, mostly because it feels like Dickens to me, because I love Fezziwig's sideburns, because of the hysterical charwoman, but mostly because Mr. Sim's Scrooge really ENJOYS being a hard-hearted miser from hell. Which makes his delight, after coming back from his Christmas travels among the spirits, more believable. Or at least I always find myself grinning from ear to ear...



"I don't deserve to be this happy. But I simply can't help it!" Hit rewind, while I make another cup of tea and pull out the Christmas cheer…
Merry Christmas, everyone!

30 October 2015

Old School, New Readers

By Art Taylor

A few years back, one of the professors in the English Department at George Mason University (where I myself teach) told me that she never put her own favorite books on the syllabi for any of her classes; seeing what the students said about them was too heart-breaking for her.

I'm currently teaching a class called "Five Killer Crime Novels"—a gen ed survey of some of milestone books in the genre, or at least books that serve to represent/illustrate some of the trends and range and depth of mystery and suspense fiction. So far, we've read Arthur Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles, Agatha Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, along with a sprinkling of short stories; still ahead are Ed McBain's Sadie When She Died and Megan Abbott's Bury Me Deep. (And yes, I know there are tons and tons of others that could've/should've made the list!)

Whether I'd count these books as all-time favorites or not (Red Harvest certainly is), each of these are books I love, one way or another. And indeed it is a little heart-breaking to have students talk (spoiler alerts!) about how disappointed they are by various aspects of the three we've read so far. "We finally see the hound and then in the next paragraph they just shoot him and that's it?" And: "She could've cut about 50 pages toward the end of Roger Ackroyd. It was so slow and so boring." And then: "I'm sorry, Professor Taylor, but Red Harvest just sucks."

I'll admit it; my internal response to that last one was along the lines of "You think your comment shows your superiority, but really it just reveals your ignorance." But I would never say that publicly, of course.

(Oh, wait.... Whoops.)

Actually, I try not to take offense to these kinds of comments and criticisms, but instead try to transform them into productive aspects of class discussion. The complaint about Hound of the Baskervilles, for example—that quick movement from the hound's appearance in one paragraph to his demise in the next—leads to a closer look at serialization and how the publication schedule built suspense. The eighth installment of the story in The Strand ends strategically at the break between those two paragraphs, with these words: "Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog."

AND STAY TUNED FOR WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!

A different effect, right?

Other reactions call for deeper discussion: Why are certain scenes included? What is the potential purpose of such-and-such artistic decisions? What are the potential effects on the reader? Why structure and pace a scene this way? or a chapter? or a succession of chapters? Or more to the point: Can you articulate why you think this book "sucks"? The key isn't the judgement itself—pro or con—but backing up judgements with evidence and authority.

"Red Harvest was just a bloodbath. I couldn't both to get connected to the characters, because after a while, I knew they were just going to die. And nobody seemed to care, not even the detective—and we're not connected to him either. We don't even get his name!"

OK, let's dig deeper into all that, I'll say—and then we do.

My point here isn't to criticize my students or to celebrate my own tactics in the classroom. My students are—fortunately!—a bright and active bunch, and our discussions are often sharp and insightful. But I do wonder sometimes about the reasons behind some of those gut responses of boredom, dismissal, dislike.

Is it that students have been so conditioned by today's various media—the pacing of a CSI episode, for example, or the short bursts of information that constitute news, or the structures and expectations of Facebook status updates, tweets, and IM exchanges—that older works become dated in more fundamental ways than just their vocabulary or dress or gender attitudes? Maybe today's modes of communication and storytelling are so different that the average student can't relate.

Is the issue about the age or era of a book at all, or is it something about the genre itself (crime fiction) or the form (a novel) that is the impediment? Sisters in Crime has done studies about the demographics of mystery readers (an aging one, as it turns out), and many students in my gen ed classes these days don't count themselves as readers at all—not in a conventional sense, even as their days often consist of more reading in other ways than most "grown-ups" do.

Is it that many of my students in this class—a gen ed class, drawing mostly on majors outside the humanities—simply aren't interested in literature at all, so the process itself might be with some level of disinterest or even hostility?

I don't know the answer to these questions. Likely some deeper study would be required, and maybe I haven't even asked the right questions or framed any of this properly in the first place. Either way, I'd love to hear what others think.

In the meantime, however, an anecdote to end this on a more positive note—a story I've told before:

A few years ago, we'd come to the end of the semester for a class that examined hard-boiled detective fiction as social documentary (maybe my favorite class of all the lit courses I've taught). It was final exam day, and students were turning in their exams as they completed them, mumbling quick good-byes, and heading out of the classroom, done for the semester.

One student turned in her exam and then walked around the desk to where I was sitting, gave me a big smile, and held out her arms wide.

I have to admit, I find myself disinclined to hug students—for a variety of reasons, as you might imagine—so I didn't stand but just sat there, gave her a "what's this? look or gesture of some kind, I can't really remember.

But I do remember what she said: "Professor Taylor, before this semester, I'd never read an entire novel, and now I've read six of them."

I stood.

I hugged.

We're Facebook friends now, and she has a daughter of her own these days, and my hope isn't simply that she's continuing to read herself but that she's reading to that daughter too.

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.

05 October 2015

Good Books and Old Movies, Part I

by Susan Rogers Cooper

I've been honored over the past few years to be asked to teach classes at Austin's Lifetime Learning Institute. This is a wonderful organization for people 55+ to take classes in just about anything and for a very nominal fee. I've taught classes on writing the mystery a couple of times, which is always fun – especially when I'm able to dazzle my students with guest speakers like Jan Grape and Joan Hess.

This semester I'm teaching a class called: “The Mystery: From Novel to Film.” We read the book, we watch the movie. And we compare and contrast. Our first book was John Buchan's “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” and, of course, we watched the Hitchcock movie version. There were a lot of differences, the main being that in the book there were no women – in the movie there were plenty. I preferred the movie myself. As did a lot of the class.

Our second movie was the William Powell and Myrna Loy version of Dashiel Hammett's “The Thin Man.” After rereading the book, I noted that the alcohol consumption was even higher in the book than in the movie, and those people could drink!

Tomorrow we watch the 1974 version of Dame Agatha's “Murder on the Orient Express,” with Albert Finney as Hercule. I'm rereading the book now and have come full circle in my appreciation of Christie's talent. She was amazing. Even knowing the ending, I'm still fascinated with how she got there.

It's going to take two classes to watch all of that very long movie, but the next, and last, movie will star two of my favorite actors in the film version of a book by one of my favorite writers: the Bogart and Bacall version of Raymond Chandler's “The Big Sleep.”

Teaching this class has given me a chance to reread some classic mysteries and re-watch some wonderful old movies. I'm already thinking about next semester and what new treasures I can share.

Any suggestions?

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...





26 February 2015

Homage

by Eve Fisher

DaVinci
the original
Mona Lisa
What's the difference between an "homage" and a shortage of ideas?  Talent.   Or gall, you take your pick.  For example, Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the world, has been done a few different ways:
Marcel Duchamp's
L.H.O.O.Q      
The Mona Gorilla
Rick Meyerowitz's
National Lampoon
illustration
"Mona Gorilla"
The other night, my husband and I were watching Wim Wenders' Hammett. And I first want to give a quick shout out to Elisha Cook, Jr., who played Wilmer in the original Maltese Falcon and the taxi-cab driver in Hammett.  And, favorite movie quote:
"What's your town like, anyway?  Free and easy?"
"Yeah.  More so than most."
"Who runs things?"
"Same people who run things everywhere.  The cops, the crooks, and the big rich."
(Indeed, once you grasp that, everything makes sense.)  

The next night, they were showing Neil Simon's The Cheap Detective on TCM, which is one of my favorite movie homages/parodies of all time.  Favorite movie quote:
"Oh, no, no. No, it's, uh, my mistake here, uh. For a second here I thought that this young lady was a girl that I knew in France; I was wrong; the girl I know is dead."
"Oh, a natural error, monsieur. My wife has been mistaken for dead girls by many men."
(There's a tag line ANY noir femme fatale would be proud to have - heads up, Velma!)

Now these are two of the many variations that have been done on Dashiell Hammett/Humphrey Bogart/Sam Spade.  (Yes, I know that Hammett wasn't Bogart wasn't Spade, but on the other hand, in the mash-up that is the cultural mind, they are, and we all know it.)  With these two movies, what you get is the German Expressionist v. New York neurotic view of the H/B/S world.  One is all camera angles and moody lighting, and a constant barrage of quotes from Hammett novels.  (I would have played the drinking game every time I recognized one, but I would have passed out long before the end of the movie.) The other is a barrage of jokes, based on twisted quotes and scenes from Bogart movies and Hammett novels.  They're both good.  They're both worth seeing.

I love homages.  The instant list of my homage favorites:

   
Horror was never the same again.  Favorite quote:
     Dr. F: "You know, I'm a rather brilliant surgeon. Perhaps I can help you with that hump."
     Igor (played by the late, great Marty Feldman):   "What hump?"


The answer to every other "normal" sports movie.
Favorite quote:  "I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance."


So good it practically counts as a Cliff Notes of Russian literature and Ingmar Bergman.  I have the whole movie pretty much memorized.  One of my favorite scenes:
       Music teacher:  So who is to say what is moral?
       Sonja (played by Diane Keaton):  Morality is subjective.
       Music teacher:  Subjectivity is objective.
       Sonja:  Moral notions imply attributes to substances which exist only in relational duality.
       Music teacher: Not as an essential extension of ontological existence.
       Sonja: Can we not talk about sex so much?


Where the West bites the dust.
Hands down best line (written by Richard Pryor):  "Mongo only pawn in game of life."

And then there's almost anything by the 5th Baron Haden-Guest:

   

And there's a whole RAFT of movies that are about nothing but making movies in Hollywood:

  

By the way, am I the only one who's noticed that every generation, there's a new version of "A Star is Born"?  Do we really need that?  Even when its B&W and silent?

A Star Is Born 1937 poster.jpg A Star Is Born.jpg AStarisBorn1976.jpg The-Artist-poster.png

And, in the world of mysteries, besides Hammett and The Cheap Detective:

My favorite Clouseau,
for the nudist camp scene alone
Murder by death movie poster.jpg                        

So, what's your list?