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


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!















30 January 2017

Oops! That Worn't Work


Mary Maloney is a devoted wife and housekeeper. One day her husband, the police chief, announces that he wants a divorce because he has met another woman. Mary is quite angry and kills him with a blow from a frozen leg of lamb. She calls the police and provides am alibi for herself with the story that she'd been out to the store when the murder took place. The investigating officer, Lieutenant Noonan is further frustrated when he cannot find the murder weapon. Knowing of the long and hard hours spent looking into the case, Mary invites Noonan and the other investigators for a bite to eat. They dig into Mary's leg of lamb and Noonan, still thinking about the missing murder weapon, says, "For all we know, it might be right under our very noses."
— Plot summary of LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER, Alfred Hitchcock TV, Season 3 Episode 28. Apl. 58, written by Ronald Dahl (story) Ronald Dahl (teleplay).
What then of Edgar Allan Poe's 1843 story of THE TELL-TELL HEART. The narrator is trying to convince us he is not mad, because he so cleverly treats the old man with such caring and delights. Although that blue eye with the film over it is still looking at him. He plans for a whole seven days. Going so stealthily at mid-night every night to the old man's room and looking in on him. Until finally the great plan comes together and as he quietly opens the door the blue eye looks a him. and after not moving for over an hour begins to hear the beating of the old man's heart.  That only adds to his fury,  he jumps on the old man, the old man screams. He pulls the man to the floor and kills him. The heart is silent.

Then he carefully cuts the corpse up and deposits it under the floor boards of the bedroom chamber. Can anyone who is mad clean up everything and it only took until 4 am. Just as he gets to his own bedroom, there is a loud knocking at the door, A neighbor had reported hearing a dreadful scream.
Three policemen come in. He explains he was the one who screamed waking from a nightmare. He tells then the old man has gone to the country. He takes them all over the house ending in the old man's bed chamber to show them all the old man's precious things are still there. He invites the police to sit and he puts his own chair right over the spot where the dismembered body is located. They sit and talk but after a time he begins to hear a ringing in his ears and then hears the heart beat. It gets louder and louder. he talks more animated and the police keep talking and act as if they don't heat the heart.

Finally he jumps up, rips up the boards and tells the police. "Here, here. I did it and here's the beating of his hideous heart."

Could we ever be as calm and collected  as Mary Maloney? To murder her husband with a leg of lamb then cook and serve it to the policemen who have been investigating?

Or are we as mad and strange as the man committing murder then when he has gotten away with it, slide into total and complete madness because he still hears the heartbeat of the man he killed?

Probably not. But we can write character's who are calm and collected and get totally away with murder. Or a character like the mad man in Poe's story.

However, in real life, just keep your imagination running when you're committing a murder on your laptop. And tell your muse to take a break your are going to cook dinner. You have everything assembled in the crock pot but the final step and notice you need a little more water. You turn the water on and nothing happens. How can that be? You were just using water about five minutes ago.

And your muse says, "How will you clean up all that blood from the kitchen floor if you don't have any water?" And there is quite a lot of blood when you shot your ex-husband who broke into your house, planning to do you bodily harm.

You look up the phone number in the local directory for City Hall to send a crew out to check out what is wrong, but you accidentally dial the police department because the print in the phone book is so small you had placed your finger on the wrong similar number.

"Oops, I dialed the wrong number, Lieutenant. I have a mess on my kitchen floor and suddenly I don't have any water."

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.