Showing posts with label John Buchan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Buchan. Show all posts

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?

08 August 2012

John Buchan: The Power House


Hey folks!  Rob here to tell you we are pleased as can be to welcome a new blogger to the second Wednesday of the month slot.  David Edgerley Gates lives in New Mexico and has had a ton of stories published in Alfred Hitchcock's and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines.  His work has been  nominated for both the Edgar and Shamus Awards.  He is probably best known for his "noir westerns" about Placido Geist.  We look forward to hearing from David for many months to come...


by David Edgerley Gates

John Buchan is probably most celebrated and best remembered for THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, and more for the Hitchcock picture, not the novel itself.  (It’s a good movie, even if Hitchcock changed the ending of the book.)
  
Buchan was an interesting guy, who served in the Boer War and was actually a spy, later, in the First World War.  He was ambitious in politics, but too liberal for the Tories, and too conservative for Winston Churchill---like Churchill, he was mothballed between the wars---and eventually wound up Governor-General of Canada, a more or less ceremonial post.  He died in 1940.  

Aside from THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, he wrote some three dozen novels, some of them thrillers, many of them historical romance.  His titles were terrific, THE BLANKET OF THE DARK, THE GAP IN THE CURTAIN, A PRINCE OF THE CAPTIVITY, a book I always thought to be about Lawrence of Arabia.  

He wrote them fast and loose.  He called them penny-dreadfuls, or ‘shockers,’ and they were, depending overmuch on coincidence and accident, but they have enormous momentum, and on occasion genuine emotional power: the scene in MR. STANDFAST, for example, when Hannay encounters the Kaiser himself on a train platform, and sees the man, weighted down by his responsibility for this cruel folly.  Buchan understood the primary job of a storyteller, don’t spin your wheels.

THE POWER HOUSE was published in 1916, a few years into the war.  The character of the villain is almost certainly influenced by Nietzsche, as is, we might well imagine, Professor Moriarty.  Conan Doyle and Buchan, as well as Kipling, another extremely invested writer, in the sense of believing deeply in the social fabric, although Kipling was by far the better craftsman, were conservatives of an older order, keepers of the flame. 

THE POWER HOUSE could be seen as a parable, but I don’t believe Buchan meant it that way.  A century later, a century that saw Hitler and Stalin, delusional maniacs who murdered millions of their own people, and many others, the book is still frightening in its prescience.  Buchan’s frame of reference, though, is different from ours.  We know the slaughter of the Great War, the Holocaust, or the genocides of Africa and the Balkan wars, so we look at a novel like THE POWER HOUSE, or PRESTER JOHN, through a lens of historical irony.  Buchan was in ignorance of the horrific future.  But he saw it in its lineaments.  THE POWER HOUSE is Hitler, unfortunately not strangled in birth, Yeats' rough and slouching beast.  Buchan had the gift, or curse, of foresight.  Cassandra, unheeded. 
    
THE POWER HOUSE, essentially, is about a guy who doesn’t think the rules apply to him.  This basic model of the sociopath is a character Buchan anticipated well before Hannibal Lecter, but one we’ve come to know.  Buchan, and Conan Doyle, got in on the ground floor.  Fu Manchu, or Dr. Mabuse, came on stage later, and they were avatars of an evil that could already be seen, off-stage.  The genius of THE POWER HOUSE lies in imagination.  The brute force of reality caught up with it.  Buchan saw the Fascists and Nazism lying in wait, tinder waiting for a match.  He was a voice in the wilderness. 

John Buchan, or Arthur Conan Doyle, or Rudyard Kipling, might in all justice be called apologists for British imperialism.  I don’t think, however, that they countenanced a philosophy that led to the death camps.  Yes, the Boer War, which was a slippery slope, with the British the first to embrace internment of non-combatant women and children.  Buchan was there, one of Milner’s acolytes.  Perhaps it suggested something else to him, that this way lies madness.  And it did. 

Much of Buchan’s work dates badly, because he’s essentially a 19th-century guy, with a late-Victorian cultural and emotional mindset.  There’s little graphic violence in his stories, and of course no sex at all.  But the men of his generation came to be marked by the Great War, with its unthinkable slaughters, Ypres, the Somme, Verdun, the introduction of tank warfare, the use of poison gas.  There were inspiring heroics, but at horrific human cost.   

The world that came after, as Paul Fussell points out, was very different, different in both temperament and imagination.  The key to THE POWER HOUSE is that Buchan foresees not the horrors to come, or even their political foundations, but the fertility of an individual capacity for evil, the earth from which the dragon’s teeth would spring.