Showing posts with label Roald Dahl. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Roald Dahl. Show all posts

10 May 2018

Actor, Writer, Catcher, Spy

by Eve Fisher

I just heard that Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd, and Jeff Daniels are all joining in a movie about Moe Berg (1902-1972), professional baseball player. He played pro for 15 seasons (1923-1939), mostly as a backup catcher. But he was called "the brainiest guy in baseball," and I can see why.  An Ivy League graduate, attorney, and baseball player who spoke nine language?  Well, of COURSE he would be a prime candidate for a spy with the OSS. 

MoeBergGoudeycard.jpgBerg began his work in 1934, when he was touring Japan with the American All-Star team. In 1943, he parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia to determine which of the resistance groups was the strongest.  (He decided for Tito, and he was right.)   He was also sent around Europe in the 1940's to collect intelligence on Germany’s efforts to build an atom bomb. If he believed the Germans were close to developing nuclear weapons, he had orders to shoot the lead physicist, Werner Heisenberg. He decided they weren't. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1945, but declined.

Things changed, though.  In the early 50's he worked for the CIA, very briefly, because they quickly decided he was "flaky". For the next 20 years, he lived with his brother, Samuel, reading and snarking and unemployed. Sam evicted him, and he lived with his sister Ethel in Belleville, New Jersey until he died.


There's a long list of unlikely spies, if you think of spies as being a specific, separate job, as in a Le Carré novel or Ian Fleming novel.  But the truth is, writers (including Le Carré and Fleming) and entertainers have been the first choice to hire for years.

The first recorded one is Thessalus, a tragic actor in Hellenistic Greece, who accompanied Alexander the Great on the long expedition to conquer the Persian empire (and, as far as Alexander could, the world). He served as an envoy (and probable spy) for Alexander to Pixodarus of Caria (southwestern Anatolia, current day Turkey) in 336 BCE.

Geoffrey Chaucer was another one.  He has a surprisingly well-documented life for the medieval son of a vintner.  Let's put it this way:  vintners were simply wealthy peasants in the view of the aristocracy.  And being a poet - well, anonymity was the order of the day for artists of all kinds.

But somehow, Chaucer got placed a page in the house of the Countess of Ulster.  He married Philippa de Roet, the sister of John of Gaunt's 30 year mistress Katherine Swynford, who eventually (through what many people of the day believed had to be either witchcraft or a miracle of God) became John of Gaunt's third wife.  In other words, Chaucer had connections:  and besides becoming one of the great poets of the English language, he became a courtier, diplomat, soldier, lawyer, and civil servant.  And spy.  

He spent a tremendous amount of his life traveling on either King Edward III or Richard II or John of Gaunt's shilling:  France, Spain, and Flanders, the Italian states, perhaps in pursuit of a princess for the young Richard to marry; and/or to negotiate peace; and/or to borrow money from the Visconti and/or Sir John Hawkwood in Milan; and/or for who knows what?  We're all guessing when it comes to what medieval potentates (or modern potentates) really wanted.  (For a great study of the actualities and possibilities of Chaucer's role as diplomat and spy, read Monty Python alum and medieval scholar Terry Jones' Who Murdered Chaucer?  Mesmerizing.)  

Some other writers are more surprising.  Graham Greene, John Le Carré and Ian Fleming make sense, because they all worked for British intelligence at one point or another.  But Roald Dahl?  Julia Child?  Harry Houdini?

Roald Dahl.jpg
Roald Dahl
Both Scotland Yard and the American Secret Service used Houdini's escape artistry for their own ends.  Houdini was notorious for going into police stations around the world - including Russia (hint, hint) - where he insisted on being locked up so that he could prove he was the greatest escape artist in the world!  The locals were wowed!  He did it again!  And he left town with his reputation intact (he always escaped), and a lot of information.  (No, I don't know what kind.)

Roald Dahl was a three time Edgar Award winner, who wrote the classic "Lamb to the Slaughter" (short story and immortal "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episode), as well as dark children's masterpieces like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and The Witches.  During WW2, he worked with Ian Fleming and others to write propaganda to help the war effort.  He also was attached to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., where he was stunned by American luxury: "I'd just come from the war. People were getting killed. I had been flying around, seeing horrible things. Now, almost instantly, I found myself in the middle of a pre-war cocktail party in America." Dahl later said: "My job was to try to help Winston to get on with FDR, and tell Winston what was in the old boy's mind."  (see Wikipedia)

And then there's Julia Child, who started out as an OSS research assistant and definitely moved up the ladder.  According to Wikipedia

Julia Child at KUHT.jpg"In 1944, she was posted to Kandy, Ceylon, where her responsibilities included "registering, cataloging and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications" for the OSS's clandestine stations in Asia.[9] She was later posted to Kunming, China, where she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat.[10] When Child was asked to solve the problem of too many OSS underwater explosives being set off by curious sharks, "Child's solution was to experiment with cooking various concoctions as a shark repellent," which were sprinkled in the water near the explosives and repelled sharks.[11] Still in use today, the experimental shark repellent "marked Child's first foray into the world of cooking..."
While I couldn't find a playable video of The Bobs' "Julia's Too Tall" song about her, I did find a couple of lyrics: "She's too tall to be a spy. But not too tall to bake a pie..."  But I disagree. I think her being too tall made her a perfect spy.  No one ever thought of Chaucer, Child, Houdini, Berg or Dahl and instantly went, Spy! which is probably part of why they were so successful.  

Which raises the interesting question of why Ian Fleming - who certainly knew better - made James Bond so damned obvious.  Apparently, on November 29, 2016, Anthony Horowitz and David Farr got into a 90 minute debate as to who was the greatest spy novelist of all time, Fleming or Le Carré.  (Full Transcript.)  Horowitz' summation was that ‘George Smiley is a fascinating character. James Bond is an icon. That’s the difference.’

And that's largely true, despite the fact that James Bond was actually a horrible spy. Think about it:  He uses his real name.  All the time.  He blows his cover, every time.  He gets captured.  All the time.  And he destroys everything he touches...  There's a whole lot of things get blown up, run over, caved in, and I'm not just talking about the women.   (10-reasons-james-bond-worst-spy-.) 

I don't know if John Le Carré and Ian Fleming ever met, but I do know that Le Carré had his own problems with James Bond.  In an interview in 1966 with BBC's Malcolm Muggeridge, he said, "I dislike Bond. I'm not sure that Bond is a spy. I think it's a great mistake if one's talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all. It seems to me he is more of some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a licence to kill...  he is a man entirely out of the political context.  It is of no interest to Bond who for instance, is president of the US or the Union of Soviet Republics."

Reflecting on the interview in 2010 he said : " These days I would be much kinder. I suppose we have lost sight of the books in favour of the film versions, haven't we ? I was a young man and I knew I had written about the reality in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and that the Fleming stuff was a fantasisation of his own experiences written from the safety of New York."  (Citation)

La nuit de Varennes (1982)Then again, maybe it's not all fantasisation.  Fleming was notoriously heavy drinker, smoker, and womanizer.  Or perhaps he was channeling another great spy, whose womanizing, gambling, style, and sheer effrontery made him welcome everywhere, even after it was known he was a Venetian spy.  Who else, but Casanova?

It's amazing that, of all the spies, Casanova has the worst movies made about him.  With one brilliant exception.  If you get a chance, beg, borrow, or steal a copy of La Nuit de Varennes, where Thomas Paine, Restif de la Bretonne (pornographer, journalist, and philosopher, often called "the Voltaire of the chambermaids"), and Casanova and others all chase down Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as they desperately try to escape Paris and their coming doom.  It is comical, philosophical, sexual, historically accurate, beautiful, horrific, and constantly entertaining.  The highlight is Marcello Mastroianni as Casanova in old age - still stylish, still courteous, still gallant, still arrogant... and ruefully, wearily truthful, even to himself.

I'd love to see a movie with James Bond in old age - see if he has the same grace and presence.  But then, icons don't change.  Fascinating characters do.

Oh, and yes, that's a young Harvey Keitel as Thomas Paine - it's a hard movie to beat.  Enjoy!















02 April 2012

Young at Heart (and Death)

Fran Rizerby Fran Rizer

Mirror, Mirror starring Julia Roberts began showing nationwide three days ago. Needless to say, I haven't seen it as I spend almost all my time at the hospital. I'm not a big Julia Roberts fan, but I'll eventually view the movie because the works of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson in the 1800's are among my long-time loves.

The trailer doesn't indicate whether Mirror, Mirror may be more accurate to the original Brothers Grimm story than Walt Disney's bright animated version with the unforgettable little people singing, "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go."

In the Grimms' version, Snow White is exiled by her evil stepmother, the Queen, who orders a hunter to kill Snow White and bring her heart back as proof she is dead. The hunter gives the Queen a bear's heart instead. The Queen eats the heart, thinking it's Snow White's, but in the end, she's forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dies.
Julia Roberts

Snow White isn't the only Grimms story that is more grim than the cartoon/Disney variations. Cinderella's original step sisters cut off parts of their big feet trying to trick the prince and make their clodhoppers fit into the golden (yep, not glass) slippers. The Brothers Grimm had two endings to the Cinderella tale. In the first, the step sisters are gruesomely murdered at Cinderella's wedding. In a later version, the sisters live but are blinded by charmed pigeons who peck out their eyes.

"Rumplestiltskin" is doomed in the original Grimms version by stomping his feet in a temper tantrum so violent that he buries himself up to his waist. When he tries to get away, he tears himself in half. Talk about a need for anger management!

As a child I read the works of Hans Christian Anderson, and they were far from "happily ever after" stories. Disney's adaptation of The Little Mermaid ends fine, but in Anderson's 1837 story, the little mermaid is forced to watch her beloved prince marry another. Then the sea gives her a choice of killing the prince or dying herself. She throws herself into the sea and will perhaps be able to earn her soul back by doing good deeds for three hundred years.

The Anderson stories I loved best were "The Little Match Girl" and "The Red Shoes." Both deal with orphans, evil, and punishment. I must have read "The Red Shoes" a hundred times as a child even though at the end the girl who chose red shoes over doing what her mother said is doomed to dance forever in the red shoes. She winds up dancing at her mother's funeral and the only way to end the dancing is to cut off her feet, which she does. Looking at that story from a senior citizen point of view, it seems a tragic piece to have held so much fascination for me as a young girl. Until this moment, I've never connected the trademark red stilletto heels of my thirties and forties to Hans Christian Anderson.

Not only did the fairy tales of the 1800's demonstrate far more evil than recent versions, modern authors of much famous children's literature were far from childlike innocence in their other works. Louisa May Alcott's early writings were published under pseudonyms. Her purple prose included "Pauline's Passion and Punishment" and "Betrayed by a Buckle" before she became famous for Little Women and Little Men.


Almost every third through fifth grade classroom has copies of Shel Silverstein's poetry collections including Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic, as well as the wonderful children's story The Giving Tree. Great kids' books, but country music fans know Silverstein also for winning a Grammy for "A Boy Named Sue," recorded by Johnny Cash. He also wrote "Buy One, Get One Free," a short play in which two hookers pitch their wares completely in rhyme. Dr. Hook and the Medicine Men recorded Silverstein's song about STD's -- "Don't Give a Dose to the One You Love the Most."

I'm compelled to mention one more children's writer, a favorite of mine. You know him as the writer of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (aka Willie Wonka), but my favorite of his kids' novels is The BFG, which I have read aloud to hundreds, perhaps thousands of children. Roald Dahl's earliest writing appeared in Playboy Magazine and included a story called "Switch Bitch."

Perhaps by now, kind readers, you are wondering how on Earth I'm going to relate this blog about children's literature to the primary topic of SleuthSayers– mystery and sometimes murder. One of my favorite Dahl stories is "Lamb to the Slaughter." This is the tale of a woman who… well, view the classic video.

If (and indeed it's a big IF) there's a message to this blog, it is that even if we choose to specialize in mystery, it's perfectly okay to venture into other genres, but if we happen to write something that will survive over two centuries, it may be rewritten by someone else along the way.

Until we meet again… take care of YOU.

23 February 2012

What weapon?

by Deborah Elliott-Upton

When someone offered me a penny for my thoughts, I laughed, but i didn't say what I was really thinking at the moment because his comment made me realize writers expect – or maybe it's just hope – to get paid a lot more than a penny for our thoughts.

In my original writing group, our members consisted mostly of beginners. We arranged to meet once a week on Tuesday evenings to read and discuss or current work. The feedback grew better with each meeting and I value the imput of those other writers struggling to find what works and doesn't in the publishing world. I don't remember whose idea it was to give ourselves a name, but somehow we decided on Tuesday Knight Writers.

Whether we considered ourselves a knightly realm of writers or simply thought we were being cute for making a play on the word "night" since we met in the evenings or both. I do know that as Texans, we almost always have to repeat our occupation to strangers that aren't from this area of the world. Often accents are misunderstood.

"Do you mean like a horse rider?" a lady asked me when we sat next to each other on a plane to Phoenix.

I remember smiling and being entranced as she knitted something delicate in a deliciously soft baby blue yarn. It wasn't her artistry I considered when I replied, "No, I mean like a mystery writer."

"Oh," she sat and started another row.

I waited a few seconds and asked the question dancing in my mind like sudden water sprinklers turning on as you walk across a lawn. My words tumbled out quickly, almost tripping over each other in my excitement of finding the answer since she'd first withdrawn her work-in-progress. I took a breath and blurted, "How'd you get those needles onto the plane?"

She stopped knitting and looked at me a bit puzzled.

"Couldn't those sharp ended knitting needles be considered a weapon?"

She shrugged. "I suppose so. Nobody said anything when they checked my carry on."

Her answer fed my mind with ideas, spilling over each other like the twisted loops she was making with the yarn, stirring up a plot for a short story I was already creating in my mind.

What sort of items are considered weapons in our modern times? A quick look at what is now vetoed from carry-on luggage provides a clue to some that are unusual to most of us.

One of the best weapons in a mystery – in my opinion– was the one used in "Lamb to the Slaughter", originally a short story by Roald Dahl. The story later appeared as the basis of an Alfred Hitchcock television episode.

I read that Dahl enjoyed horror and black comedy and it influenced his fiction writing. His writing certainly has influenced mine. Dahl thought outside the box when it came to weapons. I bet someone paid him a lot more than a penny for some of those thoughts.