Showing posts with label Golden Age. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Golden Age. 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.  

01 November 2016

Hollywood Scavenger Hunt


Well, since it’s the day after Halloween and you’re probably running low on candy already, how about something a little different? A Scavenger Hunt of sorts. There’s an old Merrie Melodies cartoon called Hollywood Steps Out—you might have seen it—that features a gaggle of Golden Age stars. So the hunt here is to see who can identify the most stars. That’s the mystery. There’s even a prize…
The cartoon (that’s what we called them) was directed by the celebrated Tex Avery, who created some characters you might have heard of, Bugs, Daffy, Porky, and more. It was produced by Leon Schlesinger, which is a name I remember seeing on cartoons from the time I was a little kid, even before I could appreciate who he was. It’s from a story by Melvin Millar.  And among other voice actors, the renowned Mel Blanc makes an appearance. The list of the characters he voiced is too numerous to even attempt, but here’s a handful: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety, Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, Marvin the Martian, Pepé Le Pew, Speedy Gonzales, Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner.

The cartoon’s action takes place in the legendary Ciro’s nightclub on the fabulous, mah deah, Sunset Strip.

So let’s get looney. How many of the stars can you pick out—no cheating:
































So how did you do? Hope you had fun. First one who gets them all in the comments gets a copy of my collection of 5 noir and mystery stories, L.A. Late @ Night, in either paperback or e-version, your choice. Of course you’ll have to give me your address and I’m not sure I can be trusted.

Here’s the key to the pix, in Order of Appearance:

Ciro’s
Cary Grant
Greta Garbo
Edward G. Robinson & Ann Sheridan
Henry Binder and Leon Schlesinger
Johnny Weissmuller
Cagney, Bogart, Raft
Garbo & Harpo
Gable and the mysterious woman in red
Bing Crosby
Leopold Stokowski
James Stewart & Dorothy Lamour
Gable and the mystery woman in red again
Tyrone Power & Sonja Henie
Frankenstein – as himself
Three Stooges
Oliver Hardy
Cesar Romero and Rita Hayworth
Mickey and Judy
Lewis Stone and Mickey
Crosby and horse
Sally Rand
Kay Kyser
Standing: William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.
      Sitting: Wallace Beery and C. Aubrey Smith
Peter Lorre
Henry Fonda
J. Edgar Hoover
Boris Karloff, Arthur Treacher (remember him from Merv Griffin?), Buster Keaton,
      Mischa Auer and Ned Sparks
Jerry Colonna
Gable and Groucho, the mysterious woman in red…………revealed

Thanks for playing. And if you want to see the whole cartoon, check it out here:




###



24 August 2015

Queen of Crime


I met Sam Neill (the movie actor) once. For a short time, in a galaxy far, far away (the 1980s), I worked as a bank clerk on campus at the University of Auckland, and Mr Neill came in one quiet afternoon to make enquiries about foreign exchanges. His brother was a lecturer at the university (his brother, Michael, would later be one of my English professors). I mention this brush with movie stardom simply because I can state that I have met and spoken to someone who not only knew, but was a good friend of, writer Ngaio Marsh.

Ngaio Marsh sold four stories to the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and I mention this upfront, because it's the only other connection (albeit tenuous) that I can claim to her; I too have had stories appear in the same magazine.

Ngaio Marsh's 
short stories 
in EQMM
I Can't Find My Way Out (August 1946)
Death on the Air (January 1948)
Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery (August 1973)
A Fool About Money (December 1974)

A couple of Dames at the Savoy (Christie and Marsh)
Edith Ngaio Marsh was born in 1895 (April 23; same birthday as Shakespeare) and died in 1982. In both instances, in Christchurch, New Zealand. If you want to talk about New Zealand and crime/mystery fiction, you start (and can pretty much end) with Ngaio Marsh. From the 1930s through to the 1980s, Ngaio Marsh wrote 32 novels (most still in print). She is considered to be one the leading writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and along with her stable mates Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers, has been described as one of the original four Queens of Crime. The actual Queen (Elizabeth 2), made Marsh a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1966, and in 1978 (along with Dame Daphne du Maurier), Dame Ngaio Marsh became a recipient of the Mystery Writers of America's highest honour: the Grand Master Award. No other New Zealand writer of mystery fiction has yet achieved her standing. In fact, no other New Zealand writer. Period.

Ngaio Marsh's parents met in Christchurch. Her mother, Rose, was a New Zealander and an actress, and her father, Henry, was British and a bank clerk with an interest in the theatre. They were married in 1894 and Edith, their only child, was born the following year. An uncle fluent in Maori was asked to provide an indigenous middle name (a custom at the time, apparently), and he came up with "Ngaio", which is a Maori word for a type of tree, with the additional connotations of clever, methodical, and restless.


So, how do you pronounce Ngaio? And I have been asked. Being an authority on the New Zealand vocabulary and accent (because I be one), I can tell you it's pronounced Nigh-Oh [ /ˈnaɪ.oʊ/ ].


Marsh's childhood, from all accounts, was reasonably spiffing and splendid (we'll skip over the fact that she was bullied at school and for a time (10-14 years) was home-schooled). She read everybody. Ah... pause for a moment to imagine a life before the Internet, before television. Imagine summer afternoons in the countryside reading Kipling, Dickens, Henry Fielding, Smollett, Shakespeare, and Conan Doyle. You can just picture her, in Edwardian attire, basking on a blanket in a soft breeze, with a flask of lemonade, a half-eaten ham sandwich, and thoroughly absorbed in Smollet's The Adventures of Roderick Random (mark the name Roderick well).

In addition to reading, Marsh also had a taste for the theatre, like her parents, and while still in school she mounted several amateur theatrical productions. She also began writing: short stories and plays. At first, her audience was her school peers, but by her 20s, she was in print, with stories and poems appearing regularly in Christchurch's The Sun newspaper. She also had a strong passion for painting, and she graduated in 1917 with an Arts diploma (first-class honours) from Canterbury University College (Christchurch is located in the Canterbury province of New Zealand).

By the time Marsh was in her early twenties, the three corners of her world had been set. It's no surprise, then, that theatre and the arts would later form the backdrop to several of her novels. And although painting would figure prominently throughout her life (dare I call it a hobby), it was to the gravitational pull of words, both those written down and those spoken aloud, where her heart fell.

For the next ten years after graduation, until 1928, Marsh continued developing her talents as a writer: writing plays and working on a "New Zealand" novel. Together with a group of likeminded artists she formed "The Group" (a group, mostly women, with avant-garde leanings). And she found on-going employment with a handful of professional theatre companies. It was in this time that she "paid her dues" and learnt her theatre craft. In fact, had Marsh never written a single novel, she would still be recognized as one of the doyens of 20th Century New Zealand theatre. Indeed, my first introduction to her was in a theatre, when I was 14. I had joined an amateur repertory company (the other members were mostly adults), and I remember Marsh being spoken about with reverence on winter evenings over cups of hot tea and crumbly digestives (a type of cookie).

Marsh (in beret) with "The Group", 1936
My first introduction to Ngaio Marsh the author had come about earlier, when I was about 6 or 7, only I hadn't been aware of it at the time. There was a bookshelf in my parents' living room. The upper shelves were lined with the classics of literature, and the lower shelves with a healthy selection of crime fiction (Cat among the Pigeons, Death on the Nile, etc.). One title on the bottom shelf always caught my eye: "Surfeit of Lampreys". I was a small boy. The title may as well have been written in Klingon. Or Latin.

In April 2012, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine published my short story Pueri Alleynienses, and a friend asked me if the Latin title was a reference to Ngaio Marsh's detective, the principal character of all 32 of her novels, Roderick Alleyn. No, it wasn't, but then I discovered, unintentionally, that it was. My story was about two old men who, many years earlier, had attended Dulwich College in London. Pueri Alleynienses is the title of the Dulwich school song. It translates from the Latin as "Boys of Alleyn" (the founder of Dulwich College was Edward Alleyn). My interest in Dulwich had been based on the fact that Raymond Chandler had been a pupil there (1900-1905). In 1882, part of Dulwich College was annexed as a separate school, to be known simply as Alleyn's School, and it was at this school that Ngaio Marsh's father received an education, and from where she took a name for her character.

And a home for her character, too. London. Inspector Roderick Alleyn worked for Scotland Yard. He was British, a member of the gentry (his older brother was a baronet). He was an Oxford graduate, and had a background in the British army and the Foreign Service before he joined the Met. Almost all of Marsh's 32 books are set in England, with just four set in New Zealand, where Alleyn is either on secondment to the New Zealand Police, or is on holiday (Colour Scheme, Died in the Wool, Vintage Murder, Photo Finish). A fifth, Surfeit of Lampreys, starts out in New Zealand, but promptly returns to London and stays there.

Why London? Because in 1928, Marsh went to live there. Why? Probably because, like most other New Zealand artists and creatives (and even more so 80 odd years ago), New Zealand is a bit empty. Even today, the population is well under five million, spread out over a land mass equivalent in size to the United Kingdom, or California, and not a lot of people in that population could give a flying truck about the local arts scene. Unless it involves Peter Jackson and lots of loud noises.

Nowadays it's called going on The Big OE (Overseas Experience). Yes, there is actually a name for it: when young New Zealanders venture overseas to find fame and fortune, or to get a life. Nowadays, an OE could mean venturing anywhere: Spain, Norway, the US, South America; but until about 20 years ago, it meant only one thing: London. There are very few New Zealanders who work, or have worked, in the arts who haven't done it. Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, to name two others. Even I’ve done it. I lived in Soho for a year (before decamping for the continent). The Big OE is written into the DNA of many New Zealanders.

Marsh (1935)
London's (and Europe's) appeal to Marsh would have been great. To quote Eddie Izzard, "It's where the history comes from." Marsh's father was British, her mother a second-generation New Zealander with strong family connections to the "old" country. And through her connections in the New Zealand theatre world, Marsh landed in London on her feet running and co-opened an arts and crafts shop in Knightsbridge. She wrote a series of travel articles that were syndicated by the Associated Press, the strength of which gained her admission to the Society of Authors in 1929. And she gave up on her New Zealand novel. The "colonial novel" had by this time become a little passé, and not something an artistic, sophisticated, independent lady of London would care for.

And then one wet winter's weekend in 1931, trapped indoors with nothing much else to do, a bored Marsh thought she would try her hand at a detective novel. She had been reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries since she had been a child, and she was au fait with the emerging detective genre (she had read Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, et al). The Golden Age of Mystery Fiction had begun, and Marsh probably didn't realize it when she put pen to paper that weekend, but she was about to join it. Her first book, A Man Lay Dying was published three years later in 1934. Inspector Roderick Alleyn entered the minds of readers and found their favour, along with most critics'.

Marsh was back in Christchurch when the book went to print, having returned in 1932 to nurse her ill mother. She wouldn't return to Europe until the late 1930s, and from then on she largely made her home in New Zealand. The Big OE was over. If I was to write a movie script about Marsh, that's where I'd end it: The publication of her first book to great reception. The end. Roll credits. The rest of her life is largely a matter of bibliography and milestone. She wrote 31 more novels featuring Inspector Alleyn (about one every 1-2 years), cementing her place in the literary pantheon. She wrote numerous plays, short stories, articles, and three works of non-fiction, including an autobiography. And she dedicated the remainder of her time to her other love: theatre.

Selected Milestones 
(not mentioned above)



1949
Penguin Books publishes the Marsh Million, in which one million copies of ten of her titles (i.e. 100,000 x 10) were released on the same day.

1950
Marsh produces her favourite play (Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author) at the Embassy Theatre in London.

It's interesting that this was her favourite play, given her love of Shakespeare. It's an oddball piece of theatre (in my tainted opinion -- I sat through a million amateur performances of it in the 1980s as a lighting designer). I much prefer Rod Serling's Five Characters in Search of an Exit, if you know your Twilight Zone.

1951 
An Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reader's poll votes Marsh one of the best mystery writers currently active.

1963 
Receives an honorary doctorate in literature from Canterbury University.

1967 
The Ngaio Marsh Theatre opens. It is a 400-seat proscenium-arch theatre on campus at the University of Canterbury (currently closed due to earthquake damage). Opening night was a Ngaio Marsh produced production of Twelfth Night.

1967 
Death at the Dolphin nominated for the Edgar Award

1969 
Marsh produces A Midsummer's Night's Dream, starring Sam Neill.

1973 
Tied up in Tinsel nominated for the Edgar Award

1978 
South Pacific Pictures (a NZ television company) produces four feature-length adaptations of the New Zealand-set novels, starring George Baker as Inspector Alleyn.

Click here to watch online: Died in the Wool

1990-94
The BBC produces The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, adapting nine of the novels.

2010 
The Ngaio Marsh Award is established by journalist Craig Sisterson. The award is given each year to the best crime novel written by a citizen (or resident) of New Zealand. 

Roderick Alleyn

Roderick Alleyn's initials are RA. As a painter, Marsh would have known that the initials "RA" after an artist's name stand for Royal Academician, i.e. an artist elected (to the distinguished title) by members of the Royal Academy of Arts. I mention this purely as an observation.

Agatha Troy 

Agatha Troy first appears in Artists in Crime (1938). She is a famous painter. She is Marsh's version of Agatha Christie's  Ariadne Oliver -- i.e. a character through which the author can vicariously live in the story. Troy reappears in the later books and becomes Alleyn's wife.

Ngaio Marsh's 
Mystery Books 
1. A Man Lay Dead (1934)
2. Enter a Murderer (1935)
3. The Nursing Home Murder (1935)
4. Death in Ecstasy (1936)
5. Vintage Murder (1937)
6. Artists in Crime (1938)
7. Death in a White Tie (1938)
8. Overture to Death (1939)
9. Death at the Bar (1940)
10. Surfeit of Lampreys (1941) [US: Death of a Peer]
11. Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)
12. Colour Scheme (1943)
13. Died in the Wool (1945)
14. Final Curtain (1947)
15. Swing Brother Swing (1949) [US: A Wreath for Rivera]
16. Opening Night (1951) [US: Night at the Vulcan]
17. Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954) [US: The Bride of Death (abridged, 1955)]
18. Scales of Justice (1955)
19. Off With His Head (1957) [US: Death of a Fool]
20. Singing in the Shrouds (1959)
21. False Scent (1960)
22. Hand in Glove (1962)
23. Dead Water (1964)
24. Death at the Dolphin (1967) [US: Killer Dolphin]
25. Clutch of Constables (1968)
26. When in Rome (1970)
27. Tied Up in Tinsel (1972)
28. Black As He's Painted (1974)
29. Last Ditch (1977)
30. Grave Mistake (1978)
31. Photo Finish (1980)
32. Light Thickens (1982)

Don’t ask me to name a favourite Marsh. I've only read two of them, and a long time ago at that. The word tardy is applicable. In researching this little post, I turned up the fact that the bafflingly titled book on my parent's bookshelf, Surfeit of Lampreys, is considered her best book. I've left a memo on my desk to get a copy and read it.

Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th' rooky wood.

Light Thickens was Marsh's final novel (1982). The title is taken from a line in Shakespeare's Macbeth (quoted above), and a principal element of the book concerns the theatrical taboo of "the Scottish play". Marsh completed the book shortly before her death. The Golden Age was over. The last queen was dead.


https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ross.author

Photos: The Christchurch Press, The NZ National Library

11 April 2013

History is Mystery


File:NAMA Machine d'Anticythère 1.jpg
Part of the mechanism in the Athens Museum
Some of you might have caught the Nova show a week ago on the Antikythera mechanism, a device from approximately 100 BCE found in 1901 in a Greek shipwreck near the island of Antikythera.  It is the world's oldest (yet found) working analog computer:

File:NAMA Machine d'Anticythère 6.jpg
Reconstruction in Athens Museum

and it generated complete astronomical information and forecasts:  sun, moon, planets, and eclipses, from now until...  whenever.  A very complex machine.  It's assumed the found object was a factory reproduction of an original designed by the great Syracusan mathematician, Archimedes.  In the process of discovering all of this information, the historians used all sorts of mystery-solving techniques - questions, x-rays, research, reconstructions, debates, etc. - to try and figure out what that super-corroded device was, what it was for, and how it was made.  Fascinating.  Catch the reruns, or rent the DVD.

And it explains why so many of us historians are also mystery fans/writers/etc.  Because history is all about solving mysteries, very cold case mysteries, with limited evidence, almost no eye-witnesses, and a whole lot of deduction.  Yes, a lot of people think that history is nothing but names and dates, but I can assure you that's the least of it - the historical equivalent of a GPS system, keeping you afloat in a vast sea of time.  But the real purpose for history is to find out how things got the way they are. History is all about solving the mystery of us. 

Of course, some things never change: human nature (curiosity, greed, anger, pride, love, lust, all the emotions and desires), and what comes of that human nature (the pursuit of power, pleasure, wealth, appetite, and occasionally peace). 


File:EmileFrontispiece.jpeg
Frontisepiece to Rousseau's "Emile"
Some things change dramatically, in a paradigm shift that makes it inconceivable (to us) that things were ever different:  our modern concepts of privacy, romance, childhood, individual rights, and personal comfort are all just that, MODERN concepts. Romantic love used to be considered a form of mental illness (read Chaucer).  What we call privacy used to be proof that you were either had no status or were in prison (who would ever be alone if they didn't have to be?).  Rousseau practically invented modern childhood in "Emile" (ironic, considering that he put each of his four children in an orphanage).  And most societies have always been willing to sacrifice individual rights for societal order, especially if it keeps the barbarians (within and without) at bay.

And some things change all the time, especially fashion and beauty, which are simply exercises in the verb "to change". 

Where does technology fit into this?  Well, I couldn't help noticing that, even on Nova, the scientists were constantly amazed at the complexity of the Antikythera Mechanism, and the ingenuity of the ancients.  And this is a classic example of one of the two great biases that historians face, within themselves and within their students/readers/society:
BIAS # 1.  Time is an arrow, leading to us, and we, right now, are living in the best of all possible worlds at the best of all possible times, and anyone in the past who didn't live the way we do, especially in terms of morality, government, technology, and religion, were stupid, not to mention just plain wrong.  A major subsection of this bias against our ancestors' intelligence is all about technology.  I cannot tell you the number of people who say, well, if the ancients were so smart, how come they didn't come up with the technology of today? The answer is to consider where and how technology was used in the ancient world:
    File:Rome Colosseum interior.jpg
  • WAR:  Greek fire; gunpowder; Archimedes and his war machines (first laser prototype; the Archimedes Claw).
  • TIMEKEEPING and ASTRONOMY:  Chinese paper and compasses, originally used for timekeeping, astronomical observations, divination, and prayers; the Antikythera Mechanism, used for timekeeping and astronomy; water clocks, mechanical clocks, etc. 
  • ENTERTAINMENT:  Look no further than the Roman Colosseum, which used a huge amount of technology of all kinds to present battles on land and sea. 
  • PUBLIC HEALTH:  Flush toilets and sanitary systems of the Indus Valley (Harappa, 26th c. BCE), Knossos (18th c. BCE) and other ancient civilizations; public baths (Indus Valley, Greece, Rome,Ottomans, Japanese).
        Sounds pretty modern to me...
    • NOTE:  I'm well aware that time only moves in one direction (at least in this brane), but it's far more like a tree, with multiple branches and twigs and stems and leaves, than an arrow. There have been societies and civilizations that have vanished completely off of the face of the earth. There are echoes everywhere of things and people that were, but left no trace. And even if they leave a trace, no explanation. Not everything connects. History is full of red herrings. 
The other major bias is the exact opposite:  

    File:Leonidas I of Sparta.jpg
BIAS # 2.  We are a degenerate and weakened species, and things used to be much better, back in... well, the Greeks believed in a Golden Age before their own Age of Iron; the Hindus for millenia have believed we are in Kali Yuga, the age of the demon; and today a surprising number of people like to tell me how much better things were in the 1950's (and I suppose they were, if you weren't a woman, gay, black, or other minority).
    • NOTE:  Just to show how dangerous this bias can be, a classic work of nostalgia history is Plutarch's (ca. 46-120 CE) "On Sparta", in which that violent, anti-education military slave state is presented as the ideal civilization, strong, brave, and free from the corruptions of commerce and money.  Obviously, Plutarch had an axe to grind.  But very few people even think about that.  Because he himself is an "ancient writer" a lot of people swallow everything he wrote as if it were absolute truth, not paying attention to the fact that he wrote almost 500 YEARS AFTER SPARTA'S DEMISE.  That's the kind of thing you have to look out for.  And part of the reason yes, you do have to know your dates... 
My general analysis of bias holders is that the first is primarily held by the young and/or successful; the second is primarily held by older people and/or those who feel throttled by present-day culture (whatever the present day is).  My other great observation is that either bias gives you a perfectly logical reason to ignore the past.  They both imply that we can learn nothing from the past, either because we are absolutely superior or infinitely inferior.  Either way, we are on our own.  Me?  I know that everyone who ever lived were just as human as I, and the basic lesson of the past is that, until human nature changes as completely as fashion or song stylings, history is going to continue to be the same damn thing over and over again.  We'd better start paying attention. 

14 February 2012

Valentine's Day -- Love Among the Clues


    Every once in a while my schedule of alternating Tuesdays coincides with a special day on the calendar.  Such is the case today:  Valentine’s Day.  A day of romance, a day that, while falling in the midst of winter, conjures spring.

    Trying to stay on topic here I decided to offer up my best recommendation for a Valentine’s Day mystery:  a story that will tug at your mind while also tugging at your heart.  Finding a candidate that fits that description is not, however, an easy task.  The Golden Age of detective fiction (my favorite hunting ground) is not exactly riddled with romantic mysteries.  This can be illustrated best by examining some favorite classical mystery authors whose works simply do not fit the bill.

   None of the Sherlock Holmes stories are potential Valentine’s Day nominees.  The closest we get to a romantic involvement for Mr. Holmes is Irene Adler, who actually appears in only one Holmes story, A Scandal in Bohemia..  Irene Adler has no romantic scenes with Holmes in any Arthur Conan Doyle story, and in fact A Scandal in Bohemia ends with her marriage to someone else.  Nonetheless she is frequently linked with Holmes, but in various pastiches, not in the original Arthur Conan Doyle canon.

    The source for these romantic conjectures involving Sherlock and Irene probably stems from a passage in  A Scandal in Bohemia where Watson sets the stage as follows:


To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.
    This, plus the fact that Irene Adler is referred to, albeit fleetingly, in four other Holmes stories, A Case of Identity, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, the Five Orange Pips and His Last Bow, inspired other writers, notably Nicholas Meyer and J.S. Baring-Gould, to speculate as to a romantic involvement between the two.  But none of their stories, and certainly none of Arthur Conan Doyle’s, meets our Valentine’s Day requirements of a mystery that is also a romance.

    My favorite Golden Age detective, Ellery Queen, fares no better.  While Ellery engaged in some flirtations over the years, in The Finishing Stroke for example, no actual romantic involvement ever took place during the course of the Queen novels and short stories.  Two recurring female characters appear as quasi-romantic possibilities, but, again, neither suffices for our purposes.

    The first of these is Nikki Porter who for a time was Ellery’s secretary.  Nikki first appeared in the Ellery Queen radio series and movies and was later a character in two Queen novels, There Was an Old Woman and The Scarlet Letters .  Nikki also appears in several short stories, but she and Ellery were never portrayed as a couple.  (Just as Irene Adler inspired other writers to hypothesize romantic involvement with Holmes, so, too, Nikki inspired a similar hypothesis concerning her involvement with Ellery in The Book Case, a conjecture for which I am largely responsible!)

   The only other possible femme fatale in the Queen canon is Paula Paris, a reclusive Hollywood columnist who sparks Ellery’s interest in The Four of Hearts and who also appears in several Queen short stories set in Hollywood.  (Paula also makes a brief appearance in my Queen pastiche The Mad Hatter’s Riddle.)  But, again, whatever spark there might have been between Paula and Ellery ultimately fails to ignite.

David Suchet as Poirot
    What of Agatha Christie?  Well, slim pickings there too.  As far as I can determine there was never any reference to a love interest for Miss Marple, and no love story involving her ever played a part in the Miss Marple novels and short stories.  We get a little closer with Hercule Poirot.  Poirot was apparently smitten at least once --  by Vera Rossakoff , a Russian countess who appears in The Double Clue and then re-appears in The Big Four and The Labours of Hercules.  However, while there is infatuation that is evident on Poirot’s part, at least in the course of Christie’s written word any attraction between the two remains unrequited.  So no Valentine story there.

    With Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe we fare, if anything, even worse.  While there is the occasional female character who earns the grudging respect of Wolfe, by and large the detective is portrayed by Rex Stout as a misogynist.  Archie Goodwin describes Nero Wolfe’s views on women as follows in The Silent Speaker:


 The basic fact about a woman that seemed to irritate him was that she was a woman; the long record showed not a single exception; but from there on the documentation was cockeyed. If woman as woman grated on him you would suppose that the most womanly details would be the worst for him, but time and again I have known him to have a chair placed for a female so that his desk would not obstruct his view of her legs, and the answer can’t be that his interest is professional and he reads character from legs, because the older and dumpier she is the less he cares where she sits. It is a very complex question and some day I’m going to take a whole chapter for it.

    Well, interesting, all in all.  But not the stuff of which Valentines are made.

    As an aside, I should at least mention here the famous "e-o/o-e" theory propounded by John D. Clark, Nicholas Meyer, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, writing as Ellery Queen, and W.S. Baring-Gould that the combination and order of the vowels in "Sherlock Holmes" and "Nero Wolfe" are a clue that Nero Wolfe is in fact the son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler.  But, again, while there are Valentine possibilities here, the theory is derivative and appears only in homages and analytic works.

     We get much closer to the mark, however, with The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett.  While it is sort of hard to believe, given all of the movie and television sequels that this book spawned, Hammett only wrote one book starring Nick and Nora Charles.  In fact, it was the last book he ever wrote.  And, even more strange is the fact that the Nick and Nora did not even appear in the original version of the 1934 novel, which was first published in a shorter version in installments in Redbook.  In any event, the romantic and flirtatious interchanges between Nick and Nora push this novel much closer to a Valentine’s Day nominee.  Indeed it was Hammett’s novel that set the stage for later spins on the “romantic couple” as detectives, notably television’s MacMillan and Wife, starring Rock Hudson and Susan St. James, and even Richard Stevenson's characters Donald Strachey and his partner Timothy Callahan, who have been referred to as the gay Nick and Nora.

    Having said all of this, however, The Thin Man is no better than a near miss, as far as I am concerned, for today’s purpose.  While the detectives are a couple, the mystery itself doesn’t tie back to or otherwise derive from their romantic involvement.

    Well, as you have probably guessed, I do have a personal favorite to nominate for best Valentine's Day mystery story.   It is Random Harvest by James Hilton. 

    I know, I know, Random Harvest isn’t a classic Golden Age “whodunit” mystery.  But it is a classic.  And it is also, most certainly, a mystery.  Written in 1941, Random Harvest tells the story of Charles Rainier, a wealthy businessman and politician, who battles his way out of amnesia to search for his long-lost love.  The story is a wonderful and nostalgic depiction of life in England from the First World War to the brink of the second, but it is also one of the finest classic mysteries I can remember reading.

    There is a tendency to say too much when discussing Random Harvest, and this I refuse to do.  As I have said before, “no spoilers here.”  I will offer up a snippet from the New York Times review published back in 1941:  “a strange tale . . . harrowing and romantic and tender.”   The Chicago Tribune, in the same year, called the book “Mr. Hilton’s best novel to date.”  That is saying something since Random Harvest was preceded by Lost Horizon  and Goodbye Mr. ChipsRandom Harvest is, in any event, my Valentine’s Day nominee since, to my mind, it is one of the best blends of mystery and romance ever written.

    So if there are any readers out there who have somehow gotten to 2012 without reading Random Harvest, or watching the 1942 film version starring Ronald Coleman  and Greer Garson, this book is for you.  My advice, however, is that you should look no further for information concerning the book: don't watch the movie, don't search out reviews, don't read about it on Wikipedia.  Just get the book and then read it as James Hilton intended, from start to finish without the “help” of others.

    Happily, unlike many volumes from the 1940s Random Harvest is still readily available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  There is even a Nook edition for $3.99.  (Sorry, apparently it has yet to be “Kindled”!)

    Enjoy. 

    And Happy Valentine’s Day.