Showing posts with label Sherlock Holmes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sherlock Holmes. Show all posts

21 August 2013

Five Red Herrings V


1.  Sherlock and key

Got a from Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine in early March describing a fascinating event in their lives.  Like good citizens they had purchased the right to use the Master's name on their magazine.  Unfortunately the person who sold them said rights apparently didn't own them.  Oopsies.  Do a search for Andrea Plunkit and Doyle estate if you want the gory details.

2.  Insecurity Questions

Wondermark is one of the most delightfully bizarre comic strips on the web.  Monty Python goes cyberpunk, sort of.




3.  Harlan Coben, here is the plot for your next novel

When Lori Ruff died in Seattle she left a strongbox full of secrets.  They made it clear that the wife and mother was living under a stolen identity.  But who she was originally and why she changed her name, well, her husband would sure like to know.  From the Seattle Times.






4.  James Powell is going to happen



I don't know if you follow Something Is Going To Happen, the blog at Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, but they recently published a wild piece by Jim Powell who demonstrates that at an age even more advanced than my own he has a crazier imagination than any teenage gamer every dreamed of.  Watch him free associate...

Though it isn’t a mystery story, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man in the Crowd” may be the short story at it’s best, for there are really only two characters, the man and the crowd. (Speaking of Poe, it has been a long time since the Sherlock Holmsing pigeon drove the Raven “nevermoring” all the way, from its perch on the bust of Pallas just above Poe’s chamber door only to come back to us again as a good part of Johnny Depp’s Tonto headgear in the new Lone Ranger movie. Sherlock’s pigeon would be replaced a few years later by the Maltese Falcon. I wonder what kind of bird will come next to roost on that well-encrusted and put upon piece of statuary?)

5.  They were steampunk before steampunk was cool.

Have you seen the website Murder by Gaslight?  True crimes of Victorian England.  Quick, Watson!  Call C.S.I.! 

06 August 2013

Mystery Film Series


by Terence Faherty

In my recent post on obscure and forgotten mystery films, I intentionally omitted any entries from mystery film series, a very popular form of crime film in the thirties and forties.  I did say, however, that I would return to the subject of film series at some later time.  Well, it's hot outside (and inside, my office is under the peak of the roof), vacation is looming, serious thought is even harder than usual, so here are some unserious thoughts about three of the best series from Hollywood's Golden Age.

A Little Background

With one notable exception addressed below, all mystery series were B pictures.  The term "B picture" might make one think "low budget," and most of these films were made for what passed for shoestring spending back then.  But the term also refers to the function of these films in a standard film program of the day.  In addition to an A picture, movie goers in the thirties and forties expected to see some combination of a newsreel, a two-reel comedy or a cartoon, a travelogue or some other informative short subject, and one or more B picture.  (Because of their role in filling out a film program, B's are sometimes referred to as "programmers.")  Being appetizer courses, these films were necessarily brief.  The average running time was just over an hour.

Series were popular with audiences because they were familiar:  same stars, same music, same sets, etc.  This recycling is one of the things that made them inexpensive to produce.  They were popular with the studios because they gave them a place to try out new talent.  So, for example, you can catch early performances of Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart in Thin Man films, Jean Arthur in two Philo Vance entries, and Ray Milland in a Charlie Chan.  All those actors would go on to win Academy Awards.  Mystery series were also a place where studios could use older stars at the ends of their careers.  Warner Baxter (another Academy Award winner) finished up as the Crime Doctor (ten films) and Richard Dix (Academy Award nominee) in the Whistler series (eight films).

The Thin Man Series

The exception to the B picture rule mentioned above was the Thin Man series, which starred the great team of William Powell and Myrna Loy.  It could be argued that the first film, The Thin Man, based on the Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name, was modestly budgeted by MGM standards.  But it earned a pile of money, ensuring that subsequent films would be unquestioned A products.  They appeared at long intervals for a series; only six films were made over thirteen years.  The closest thing to the Thin Man phenomenon was probably the Road pictures Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made for Paramount:  A picture follow-ups to an unexpected smash hit, released at irregular intervals as special event films.

William Powell, Asta, and Myrna Loy
 on the set of The Thin Man Goes Home 
The Thin Man films depended heavily on the charm and chemistry of their two stars:  Powell, the husband detective repeatedly pulled out of his boozy retirement, and Loy, the detective-wannabe wife who often did the pulling. They may have been the most happily married couple in Hollywood history.  Early on some name confusion arose.  "The Thin Man" actually refers to character from the first film whose disappearance sparks the plot.  The earlier titles in the series reflect this:  After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man.  But soon, probably because Powell was no weightlifter, the Thin Man came to mean the character Powell played, Nick Charles, in the public's mind.  Eventually, MGM gave up the fight (as Universal did when the Frankenstein monster usurped the last name of Dr. Frankenstein).  So the fifth entry is called The Thin Man Goes Home.    

In addition to the drinking and the leads' banter (and the participation of Asta, a fox terrier), a standard feature of the films was the denouement scene that ended each entry, in which all the suspects were brought together and Charles winged a summation of the case, hoping that someone would make a slip ("just one slip").  According to Loy, Powell complained about the pages of dialogue that he had to learn for these scenes, and the scriptwriters probably felt the same way about it.  But as payoff scenes, these really pay off.

The series declined gently after its great start, as the actors aged and the characters were softened (meaning they drank less).  My favorite is After the Thin Man, from 1936.

The Sherlock Holmes Series

My favorite film series when I was a kid was the Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson.  This was actually two series, made by two studios.  20th Century Fox got the ball rolling with two films set in the proper Victorian time period:  The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, both released in 1939.  The box office wasn't what they'd hoped for, so they dropped the project.  But Rathbone and Bruce didn't drop the roles.  They began instead what would be a long run playing the famous duo on radio, also in period.  So the public was primed for a return to the big screen.  But when it happened, in 1942 courtesy of Universal, Holmes and Watson were in what was then modern dress, facing off against the Nazis.

Nigel Bruce, Basil Rathbone, and Evelyn Ankers
on the set of The Voice of Terror
This updating has bothered purists ever since, but the Universal series was simply reverting to what had been the norm prior to 20th's Hound.  The strange-but-true fact is that every Holmes sound film prior to 1939 had been updated to the then current period.  This was true of an earlier series, Arthur Wontner's six-film effort, of Clive Brook's two films as Holmes, and of a number of one-offs by various actors.  Unfortunately for the Universal series, all Sherlock Holmes theatrical films that followed it were done as period pieces, making this second Rathbone/Bruce teaming seem like an aberration.  One of the things I like about PBS's Sherlock and CBS's Elementary, which were written about in this space recently by Brian Thornton, is that they again reimagine Holmes and Watson for the modern age, offering the Universal films some retrospective cover. 


Like the Thin Man films, the Sherlock Holmes series banked on the playing and chemistry of its two leads, who, like Powell and Loy, were good friends in real life.  Basil Rathbone's Holmes, perfect in stature, profile, and voice, seems to be enjoying life in the two 20th Century Fox outings.  In the Universal films, he is often serious and even somber.  I'm always grateful for the occasional smile he gets from the carrying on of Nigel Bruce, though my gratitude is not universally shared.  Many Sherlockians deplore Bruce's trademark buffoonery, wishing for something closer to the Watson of the stories.  This wish ignores the reality that Watson's function in the series isn't the same as it had been in the stories.  Here he's comic relief.  With the exception of the Thin Man films, which were basically comedies with mystery relief, all the mystery series had comic relief sidekicks.  Nigel Bruce was the best. 

The twelve Universal films only paid lip service to Doyle's stories, but they always moved along briskly.  Other assets include a stock company of English bit players that almost makes you believe these were shot in England and great title music by Universal's house composer, Frank Skinner (who also scored some of their horror films).    

Many commentators pick The Scarlet Claw as the best of the Universal films, but my favorite is 1942's Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror.  I mean, if you're going to bring Holmes into the forties, he might as well be helping with the war effort.  Plus this one has some strikingly noir photography and the beautiful Evelyn Ankers. 

The Charlie Chan Series

It is not uncommon these days to hear the Charlie Chan films, based on the character created by Earl Derr Biggers, referred to as racist, which is sad and silly in equal measure and says more about our times than it does about this series, the longest running mystery film series of them all.  There were two or three precursor films starring Asian actors as the detective, but the run really began with the casting of Swedish actor Warner Oland as a globetrotting Chan.  (In one four-film stretch, Chan jumped from London to Paris to Egypt and on to Shanghai.)  Oland's claims of Mongol ancestry might have been studio moonshine, though costar Keye Luke, himself Chinese, has testified that Oland wore no special makeup for the part, other than a fake goatee.  But Oland's genetic makeup and his dependence upon makeup are equally beside the point, in this writer's opinion.  Oland was an actor playing someone he wasn't, which is what all actors do.  And he played this particular someone better than any actor before him or after him.

Warner Oland and Keye Luke
on the set of Chalrlie Chan
at the Opera 
Oland's Chan was smiling and genial, much of the time.  This is one of the charges brought against it: that its geniality reflects subservience. For me, it places Chan in the long tradition of detectives who encourage their opponents to underestimate them.  I always loved the moment in the Chan films when Oland would drop the smile and intone "you are murderer."  This phrasing brings to mind another charge against Chan:  his English isn't perfect.  But I don't think Oland/Chan was ever ungrammatical.  He merely dropped the occasional article and struggled with American idioms.  Unless they lived in very small towns, audience members of the thirties probably knew immigrants of many ethic backgrounds who fought the same battles with English.  Many had fought them themselves. 

Moviegoers of the period were also familiar with another part of the immigrant experience reflected in these films:  the conflicts between immigrants and their Americanized children.  This source of comedy relief was introduced to the series when Chan's "number one son" Lee, played by Keye Luke, debuted in Charlie Chan in Paris.  After that, this series, like the earlier two I've described, profited greatly from the chemistry of its costars, in this case a Swedish pretend father and his Chinese pretend son.  

Oland died in harness and was replaced by Sidney Toler, who did depend on makeup and could never be accused of smiling too much.  He received a new sidekick son, Jimmy Chan, played by Victor Sen Yung.  A third son, Tommy, would be played by Benson Fong while Yung was in the service during the war.  Around that time, Toler died and was replaced by Roland Winters.  When the series sputtered to an end, there had been over forty entries and it had proven popular all over the world, including China.

Since I'm picking favorites, I'll name a Chan film, 1936's Charlie Chan at the Opera.  It's from the series' peak period and features Boris Karloff as the skinniest baritone in the history of grand opera.  Plus they hired Oscar Levant to whip up a phony opera for the picture.  How's that for attention to detail?

In Conclusion

I don't have a conclusion; I just needed another heading for balance.  Someday, when it's hot again, I'll write about some of the lesser movie series.  In the meantime, stay cool.

18 July 2013

The Road to Damascus - or Somewhere...


Brian Thornton blogged a couple of weeks ago about the importance of both a strong plot and well-written characters.  Now I like certain characters straight up and traditional - Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe, etc.  You learn more about them - Holmes' brother, Nero's daughter, Miss Marple's flirtation so deftly nipped in the bud by her mother - but the characters are there, fixed, sure and solid.  The down side is that they are done growing.  Luckily, I never tire of them as they are. 

But I also honor the authors who manage to transform their characters over time - who change and grow into something different than the person we first met.  They mature.  Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane both changed over the course of the 8 novels and 2 short stories Miss Sayers wrote.  The posh, flighty eccentric with a taste for flagrantly expensive, professionally beautiful women and old books became a man who wrestled - through his avocation - with his own PTSD and fell passionately in love with an intelligent woman whose main beauty was her voice.  And Harriet discovered self-esteem and freedom from her fear of a cage - both in marriage and in prison.

And then there are those who pull a 180, changing to their exact opposite to the point that it's unbelievable.  Except in real life, it happens all the time.

There are the obvious religious transformations, i.e., the roads to Damascus - Paul, Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Abba Moses (old black guy, used to be a professional thief/murderer, became a hermit monk in the Wadi Natrun back 150 CE), etc. 

There are those who were knocked sideways by sorrow:

File:Ary Scheffer - Franz Liszt.jpg
Young Liszt, Brooding and Burning
File:Franz Liszt 1858.jpg
Liszt, Older and Mourning

Franz Liszt (1811-1886), the famous composer and pianist, and a formidable womanizer, lost his son and one of his daughters (by the Countess d'Agoult) in 1859 and 1862, respectively.  (NOTE:  His surviving daughter, Cosima, a musician in her own right, would marry first Hans von Bulow- does anyone know if he's an ancestor of Claus? - and then Richard Wagner.) He became a Franciscan, received the tonsure, took the four minor orders porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, and from then on was known as Abbe Liszt.  His whole life style calmed down considerably, and he spent much of his time, outside of playing, in solitude and prayer.  

File:Liane de Pougy postcard.jpgLiane de Pougy (1869-1950) - infamous courtesan of La Belle Epoque, she ran through men at a merry clip, accumulating massive wealth and dominating the gossip columns along with her co-courtesans, La Belle Otero, et al.  She married the Romanian Prince Georges Ghika in 1910 and settled down.  But her son by a much earlier marriage(?) was killed in WWI, and she became a Dominican tertiary, devoting herself to the Asylum of Saint Agnes, which took care of children with birth defects.  A recent French biography of her has the subtitle "Courtesan, princess, saint..."  The last might be extravagant - I haven't read the biography - but her life definitely took a different turn.

Speaking of courtesans and such, there are many throughout history who decided that repentance became them.  Among my favorites are the rivals Louise de La Valliere and Francoise-Athenais, Marquise de Montespan:

File:Lely-Vallière-et-ses-enfants-Rennes.jpgFile:Francois-Athenais de Rochechouart.jpg
Louise de la Valliere and children on left; Athenais de Montespan on right

Louise was the first "maitresse en titre" of Louis XIV, bearing him four children, which was part of the problem.  Childbirth changed her fragile beauty and she was succeeded by her supposed best friend, Athenais, who held on to Louis' attention through seven pregnancies and innumerable side affairs (Louis never met a woman he didn't want to have, and, as king, he had most of them).  She was finally ousted from the royal bed by the combination of a huge scandal involving multiple poisonings - next time's blog alert! - and her own governess for HER royal bastards, Madame de Maintenon, who was trying to use God to embarrass the king into morality.  Louise retired to a strict Caremlite convent early in the game.  (My favorite part is that the abbess of this extremely strict convent agreed that Louise had already done much of her penance in court).  Interestingly, and entirely out of character, in old age, the almost heathen Athenais also turned to strict penance.  Louis and Maintenon were morganatically married, and Louis remained reasonably faithful (by now he was forty-five which, at the time, was definitely middle-aged) and, as always, convinced that he was God's favorite son.  (Louis would NOT be on the list of people who change over time.) 

There are also those who, apparently, get a burr in their butt, such as the Wanli Emperor (1563-1620).

File:明神宗.jpgThe Wanli Emperor came to the Dragon throne near the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).  He was 9 years old, but had an excellent chief minister who trained him well before dying when Wanli was 19.  The next 20 years were a golden age for China - Wanli was a vigorous, active, hands-on emperor who stopped attempted invasions by the Mongols, an attempt by Japan (under Hideyoshi) to take Korea, and a major internal rebellion.  China prospered.  And then - one day he stopped doing anything.  No meetings, no memorials, no signing things, nothing.  Government came to an absolute standstill until the day he died.  Why?  We don't know.  There are two possibilities given by most historians:
(1) he decided to spend the rest of his reign building up his wealth and his tomb, thus he had no time for work.
(2) he was angry because he wanted one of his sons by his concubine, Lady Zheng, to be the next crown prince, and strict court etiquette demanded that the office be passed to his son by his Empress (the future Taiching Emperor), thus bringing government to a halt was his revenge. 
Personally, I don't know that either of these pass muster.  I mean, for a while, but for 20 years?  What would explain something like that?  Depression?  Addiction?  A combination of both?  In any case, with government at a standstill, China floundered, and the last few emperors couldn't get it back.  The Wanli Emperor's dereliction of duty was one of the major reasons why the Ming Dynasty fell 24 years later to the Manchus. 

And there are those who appear to really grow and CHANGE:

File:NathanBedfordForrest.jpg
Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) enlisted in the Civil War as a private and rose through the ranks to become a field commander.  And he was brilliant.  My favorite story is from the Battle of Parker's Cross Roads, 12/31/1862, when he was surprised by a Union brigade attacking his rear.  Trapped between two Union forces, he told his troops "Charge 'em both ways!" - and they did, and he won.  It seems like every Civil War historian is fascinated by this military genius who never attended West Point or took any military classes.  But what makes Forrest fascinating to me is that he was an antebellum slave trader and millionaire, who in the 1860's was one of the founders (perhaps the first Grand Wizard) of the KKK.  But barely ten years later he repudiated the Klan, and went around giving speeches advocating reconciliation between the races to both white and black organizations.  In one of them, before a black organization, he said, "Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand."  Yes, it sounds a little condescending to modern ears - but this is the sound of a man who had changed profoundly...

14 May 2013

The Double Dippers


I've always been as big a fan of old movies as I am of detective fiction, as anyone who's read my Scott Elliott series knows. In fact, I first discovered many literary detectives through movies and only later headed to the library to find their books. I was almost always blown away by the source material, but I never lost my fondness for the films.
Somewhere along the line, I spotted the odd fact that is the topic of this column and that I'm offering, free of charge, to anyone stuck for a doctoral dissertation subject. It is that an actor who played one famous detective from popular literature back in Hollywood's golden age often played a second.

Mr. Bogart
The most famous example is Humphrey Bogart, who played both Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The success of Bogart's 1941 The Maltese Falcon certainly inspired his 1946 The Big Sleep. In the trailer for the latter, Bogart enters a bookshop and asks for something similar to the Hammett book. The helpful clerk hands him the Chandler. But Bogart by no means repeated his Spade performance when playing Marlowe. Where he was sardonic and cocky in the first film, he was stalwart and self-deprecating in the second. (Although, you might argue that this was just the way Bogart's screen persona had evolved.)

Mr. Powell
William Powell was a much bigger star than Bogart in the 1930s, though he's not as well- known today. When he is remembered, it is most often as Nick Charles (another Hammett creation) or at least as the man who's always standing next to Nora Charles, as played by Myrna Loy. But Charles was Powell's second detective persona. The first was S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance. Powell first played Vance in the silent-turned-talkie The Canary Murder Case in 1929 and then in three more films. The best is the last, The Kennel Murder Case, released in 1933, only a year before The Thin Man. Powell's Philo Vance, a well-dressed and serious clubman (often in gloves), would never be mistaken for his brilliantly freewheeling Nick Charles. But the Vance role was probably more important to Powell's career, as it lifted him out of the ranks of silent-screen supporting players and made him a talkie star.
Mr. Rathbone

In the middle of Powell's run as Philo Vance, a rival studio brought out Van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case, starring Basil Rathbone as Vance. Rathbone, as well turned out sartorially as Powell, was much stiffer in the part. He would only find career-changing success as a film detective nine years later, in 1939, when he was given the role he'd been born to play, Sherlock Holmes, in The Hound of the Baskervilles. More on that epic performance at some later time.

Mr. Cortez
Ricardo Cortez is pretty much forgotten outside of film buff circles, but he was the screen's first Sam Spade. His Maltese Falcon was released in 1931, ten years before Bogart's, and, for an early talking picture, it wasn't bad. Cortez was especially good. He was an actor who smiled and laughed a lot, and his Spade was even better-humored than Bogie's. (If you're thinking that Cortez's performance was also a blow for Hispanic actors everywhere, don't let his stage name fool you. He acquired it when he arrived in Hollywood in the 1920s, during the scramble to find another Rudolph Valentino. Up until then, Cortez had been a New Yorker named Jacob Krantz.) Cortez played a second famous detective in 1936's The Case of the Black Cat, taking over the role of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason, which had previously been played by Warren Williams. Cortez's Mason smiled a lot and acted like he'd actually cracked a law book or two.

Mr. Montgomery
There are further examples, like the aforementioned Warren Williams, who, in addition to playing Perry Mason, was yet a third Philo Vance, and George Sanders, who was both Leslie Charteris' Saint and Michael Arlen's Falcon (and good luck telling them apart), but I'd like to close with Robert Montgomery. When I was growing up, Montgomery was already fading from popular memory, being mostly known as the father of Bewitch's Elizabeth Montgomery. But old film lovers remember him as the star of classics like Here Comes Mr. Jordan and They Were Expendable. Montgomery also played two very famous literary detectives. He was another Philip Marlowe, in 1946's flawed but interesting Lady in the Lake. And earlier, in 1940, Montgomery had starred as Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey in Busman's Honeymoon. In both films, Montgomery was more or less miscast, but you have to admire the versatility of an actor who can play both Marlowe and Wimsey with even qualified success.

What does all this double dipping mean? What does it say about the film business or the actors named or the popular fictional detectives of the day? It's your doctoral dissertation; you work it out. And don't forget to send me a copy.

19 March 2013

Doyle When He Nodded


by Terence Faherty

First I'd like to echo Brian Thornton by thanking the other contributors to SleuthSayers for their warm welcome. I'd especially like to thank Robert Lopresti for inviting me to give this a try and Dale Andrews, who's alternating with me on Tuesdays, for the generous plug he gave me in his most recent post.

For my first post, I thought I'd write about one of my mystery writing heroes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and about one of his most interesting characteristics (from a writer's point of view): his carelessness.

Even casual readers of Doyle's immortal Sherlock Holmes stories have probably noted one egregious example of this carelessness, namely Watson's mobile bullet wound, which unaccountably shifts from his shoulder to his leg. Well, you might be thinking, in a long series of stories (there are fifty-six Holmes short stories and four longer ones), a writer is apt to get a detail of a character's backstory wrong. But Watson's wound made its famous migration sometime between the first tale, A Study in Scarlet, and the second, The Sign of Four. Not a good omen for the future, though a telling one.

I'll cite just a couple more examples I've come across recently. In "The Copper Beeches," a young governess arrives at 221B for a morning meeting, stays about twenty minutes, and bids Holmes and Watson "good-night" as she leaves. In "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Watson's wife refers to him as James, though his given name was John. Speaking of the doctor's wife, the reports of her death seem to have been greatly exaggerated, as she returns from the grave from time to time. Or was there a second Mrs. Watson? Or half a dozen?

Dorothy L. Sayers, another of my favorites, once wrote a scholarly essay that attempted to straighten out the date problems in "The Red-Headed League." She focused on four issues, one of which might be called "The Mystery of the Missing Summer." The story is set in October of 1890 but a character refers to an April newspaper article as having appeared "just two months ago." What, as current scholars might phrase the question, is up with that?

I find two features of Doyle's carelessness particularly intriguing. The first is its endurance. Okay, so Doyle wrote quickly and didn't get much help from his editors at the Strand Magazine. But who was minding the store when the stories were collected in book form? Buy any new edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes today and in "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Watson's wife will still get his first name wrong. October 9, 1890 will still be called a Saturday in "The Red-Headed League" when it was in fact a Thursday. It's as though Doyle carved his first drafts in stone.
 
Even late in his long life, by which time Sir Arthur must have known that the tossed-off Holmes tales were going to outlive his more serious literary efforts, he didn't clean up after himself, though by then he must have received hundreds of letters from helpful or confused readers. By then, too, pioneering Sherlockian scholars had published essays on all aspects of the Holmes tales, including the puzzling problems.

Doyle might have recognized in this correspondence and in the critical literature an unlooked-for benefit from his mistakes. I find this benefit to be the second intriguing characteristic of Doyle's carelessness: its appeal. Far from turning readers off, it draws them in. It makes the Sherlock Holmes stories a particularly interactive form of fiction.

All fair play mysteries are interactive to the extent that readers are invited to solve the crime along with the detective, but the Sherlock Holmes stories take interaction to a whole new level. Like Dorothy Sayers, generations of writers, who presumably had better things to do (like dogs to walk and lawns to mow), have taken up their pens to try to reconcile or explain away Watson's two wives and the "long interview" in "The Copper Beeches" and so on. (One of Sayers' explanations for the date problems in "the Red-Headed League" was transcription errors caused by Watson's poor handwriting, perhaps the earliest argument against cursive.)

In the process, the Sherlockians scholars have created hours of enjoyment for readers who love the stories and maybe even helped the stories live on. It's enough to make an author cast a jaundiced eye on writing-manual advice of the "revise endlessly" variety. A little carelessness might actually be good for the soul of a work. To paraphrase Holmes himself, once you have eliminated actual spelling errors, whatever remains, however improbable, might be better left alone.

06 March 2013

Portrait of a man who never lived


by Robert Lopresti

A few months ago I wrote a piece here about Rex Stout's most famous characters and I included wonderful illustrations of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.  I have since discovered that they are both the work of professional portraitist Kevin Gordon.

I have been in touch with Kevin and thought you might enjoy some of what he had to say.  Before he gets to talk I wanted to mention that he is a second generation portraitist (ain't that cool?) and the author/illustrator of many books. 

All right.  With no further ado:



Since painting people is my profession, as you've apparently seen from my website, I always thought it would be fun to paint Mr. Wolfe. But, all I had was my own mind's-eye version and I'm used to flesh-and-blood models.

So I corralled a fellow who had the requisite bulk, posed him with the required props and painted away. The face is strictly my own invention, since he didn't actually LOOK like Wolfe to me. But he was game, and I probably saved his life, since being told you resemble Nero Wolfe comes with a certain stigma and he lost about 90 pounds since he posed for me.

The original hangs on my dining room wall, glowering at my wife and I as we enjoy her Fritz-quality meals, until it finds a more appropriate and profitable (at least for me) home.

Both Tim Hutton and Bill Smitrovich (who played Archie and Cramer respectively on the A&E series) have the prints on their walls, as does Rex Stout's daughter Rebecca...

With Kevin's permission  I am including another of his works whose subject you may find familiar.

It's a very small oil painted as a trade for two Arthur Conan Doyle letters, one of my prized possessions. I did a little pencil drawing of Conan Doyle which is framed with the letters. Never being able to meet him, having that drawing of Conan Doyle framed with the pages that he held in his own hands is the next best thing.

I read my first Sherlock Holmes story when I was ten. I remember it clearly. It was an assignment for English class; “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”. I was hooked and then delighted to find out there were fifty-six more stories and four whole novels.  I read every one in order and then I read them again. Imagine my excitement when I found out they actually made movies about Holmes. Wow! Of course they were the Basil Rathbone features, so except for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, the others were a little disappointing having been set in “modern” times, especially with Rathbone’s inexplicable upswept hairdo.  A thorough examination of Conan Doyle’s life followed and I’ve been a devoted Sherlockian ever since, having made the pilgrimage to Baker Street several times.

As for Rex Stout, the first story I read was in 1990. It was “Christmas Party”, in an anthology called Murder for Christmas and I got the same feeling I had as a ten year old with Holmes. I decided I’d better find out how it all started and began reading the Nero Wolfe stories in order. With Fer de Lance, I was off and running and read all the stories in order, which wasn’t as easy as with Holmes because there was no single volume which contained all the tales. Surely, I thought characters and stories as wonderful as these must have sparked some sort of fan club, like the Baker Street Irregulars, and that’s when I found the Wolfe Pack, and through the Pack, the Stout family. I spent a delightful afternoon at High Meadow with Barbara Stout and Liz Maroc and later with Rebecca Stout Bradbury. (Stout's daughters and (Liz) a granddaughter.)  Eating lunch at the same dining room table at which Rex Stout regaled his family with the witticisms that Archie had uttered that day, and then sitting at the desk upstairs where Stout actually created them was certainly a thrill for a ten-year-old middle-aged man.

I asked Kevin how he paints a person who doesn't actually exist.

Of course, painting a person I see only in my head poses a different problem than painting the chairman or president that’s sitting in front of me.  With Wolfe, it was more of a feeling that I tried to convey rather than his precise features. I suppose I could have used a photo of Orson Welles or someone like that, but I wanted Wolfe to be unrecognizable as anyone but Wolfe. That’s where an artist’s imagination and knowledge of the human face come in handy. The representation is how I feel about Wolfe. In all honesty, it’s still not exactly how I picture him, but it’s close enough.

As for the little head I did of Holmes that’s on my website, I used the photo of Sidney Paget’s brother Walter as my reference, because I felt that if Walter was a good enough model for Paget, he was good enough for me. I also find it interesting that Conan Doyle thought that Paget’s illustrations made Holmes too handsome and that in his own mind’s eye, Conan Doyle saw Holmes as rather ugly and that he resembled what he quaintly called a “red Indian”.

The question has also come up how I know when I’m done painting a picture, I agree with Leonardo Da Vinci who said “A painting is never finished, only abandoned.” An artist friend of mine put it this way: “It takes two people to paint a picture; one to do the painting and a second one to hit the first one over the head and make him stop.”


I guess Kevin paints real people for a living and fictional ones for fun.  He certainly does them both well.

29 January 2013

The Art of Detection


    When I was in high school, back in the 1960s, I stumbled onto a paperback book entitled Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street.  The book, which was published in 1962, was not written by Arthur Conan Doyle.  The author of this “biography" of Holmes was W.S. Baring-Gould.  As a mystery fan I immediately purchased and then devoured the volume.

   Baring-Gould, as I later found out, was a Baker’s Street Irregular who had devoted much of his life to the study of Sherlock Holmes.  Among the things that interested me about the book were “facts” set down by Baring-Gould concerning the life of Holmes that were not elsewhere reflected in the Arthur Conan Doyle canon.  To wit, Holmes, according to Baring-Gould, was born on January 6, he lived to the ripe age of 108, and in his 108th year he completed an omnibus retrospective on his own life and work, The Art of Deduction

    As I have discussed at some length previously, I am a big fan of hidden alignments that seem to pop up in the world around us, facts that square up in ways that break the boundaries of coincidence and thereby hint at an underlying order.  And we now have yet another example of exactly such an alignment. 

    According to Ellery Queen’s 1957 novel The Finishing Stroke, Queen was born in 1905, the same year that his creators Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee were born.  So this year, 2013, would be Ellery’s 108th year.  And commemorating that event Professor Francis M. Nevins, the world’s preeminent Queen scholar (and a man whose own birthday, January 6, is the same as Holmes’) has published a true magnum opus on Ellery, entitled Ellery Queen:  The Art of Detection.  

     I shared a cup of coffee with Mike Nevins in St. Louis over Christmas (well, actually he drank soda) and he laughed off all of the Holmes/Queen alignments set forth in the previous paragraphs as mere coincidence.  The most he will get from me on this is a wink and a smile.  Unwitting or not, to my mind it is kismet that is playing with us here.

    Of course, the comparisons between Holmes at 108 and Queen at the same age, and between the works of Baring-Gould and Nevins, are not perfect.  For one thing, while Holmes’ The Art of Deduction never in fact existed, Nevins’ The Art of Detection, by contrast, is wonderfully real, all 351 pages of it.  But before getting to this encyclopedic tribute to all things Queen, let’s tarry just a moment and talk about Mike. 

Mike in St. Louis, December 23, 2012
    Mike Nevins  is Professor Emeritus at St. Louis University Law School, and is a magna cum laude graduate of St. Peters College and a cum laude graduate of New York University School of Law.  For many years he taught law, specializing in copyright law, in St. Louis.  But as all Queen aficionados know, Mike’s interests run well wide of legal matters.  He has written definitive literary analyses on subjects as disparate as Cornell Woolrich and Hopalong Cassidy.  Mike has also published six novels, two collections of short stories, several books of non-fiction and has also edited more than 15 mystery anthologies and collections.  More importantly, and, luckily for us, he is, without question, one of the world’s leading authorities on Ellery Queen and the collaborative team that was Queen:  Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee.  Mike has twice won  Edgar Allan Poe Awards for critical works, once for an earlier study of Ellery Queen and once for his volume on Cornell Woolrich.  Mike is also the author of one of the finest Ellery Queen pastiches ever written, Open Letter to Survivors. Who better to offer the reading public the definitive analysis of the works of Ellery Queen?

    As noted above, Mike’s 1974 Royal Bloodlines has already garnered an Edgar for its treatment of the Dannay and Lee writing team.  In the introduction to The Art of Detection the basis for his new second take on the same subject is explained by Mike as follows:
I think I just heard a question.  “Hey, didn’t you do that book already, back in the Watergate era?  Well, sort of.  But as I got older I became convinced that I hadn’t done all that good a job.  Fred Dannay was the public face of Ellery Queen, and in the years after we met he became the closest to a grandfather I’ve ever known, but I never really got to know the much more private Manny Lee.  He and I had exchanged a few letters, and we met briefly at the Edgars dinner in 1970, but he died before we could meet again.  Because of his untimely death, Royal Bloodlines . . .  inadvertently gave the impression that “Ellery Queen” meant 90% Fred Dannay.  One of the most important items on my personal bucket list was to do justice to Manny.
    That concern (notwithstanding that prior Edgar award) is completely addressed and fully remedied in The Art of Detection, which painstakingly traces the lives, times and collaboration of the two cousins who invented Ellery the detective and Ellery the writer and editor.  No matter how familiar you are with Queen, you will take away new knowledge when you finish reading The Art of Detection.  

    Like Joe Goodrich’s excellent volume from earlier this year, Blood Relations, which focused on the drafting of three of the best Queen novels in the late 1940s, much of the background material in The Art of Detection, notably including the legendary feuding between Dannay and Lee, is premised on the words of Dannay and Lee themselves, as forth in their letters, which are extensively quoted throughout the new Nevins work.  Also included are correspondence between Nevins himself and Dannay, and between Lee and legendary critic and writer Anthony Boucher, who famously opined that "Ellery Queen is the American detective story," and who contributed plotting to the Ellery Queen radio shows during times that family illnesses kept Dannay from performing that task.  The resulting narrative of the lives of these two writers, much of it in their own words, and of Queen, is a wonderfully detailed portrait.

    As already noted, The Art of Detection is encyclopedic in its coverage.  Beyond biography, the reader finds detailed discussions of all of the Queen books, as well as the various ventures into other media, including  the various radio shows featuring Ellery, the (often unsatisfying) Ellery Queen movies of the 1940s, the early television series, and the 1975 NBC series featuring Jim Hutton.  Mike has even offered detailed analyses of the infamous “ghosted”  Queen paperbacks, farmed out to other authors and then edited by Lee, which were commonplace on the paperback shelves of the 1960s.  In short, there is basically nothing about Ellery that is not addressed and answered by this fine work. 

    As any Ellery Queen fan is well aware, the Queen library, at least in the U.S., has teetered on the edge of extinction over the last few years.  Near the end of his book Mike comments on this as follows:
When the author dies, the work dies.  That is almost always the reality, and certainly it’s the rule in genre fiction.  There are always a few exceptions, like Agatha Christie and Louis L’Amour, but those authors are rarae aves.  I took it for granted that Ellery Queen was one (or two) of them.  I never thought I’d live to see the falling off into near oblivion of what had been a household name for more than a decade before I was born and for at least the first thirty years of my life.
    It is certainly true that it takes an historical perspective such as that provided by The Art of Detection to fully appreciate how much a part of mystery fiction Ellery was in the past, and how diminished his role is today.  But hopefully there is still time and space for resurgence.  Certainly excellent works such as The Art of Detection and Blood Relations, each of which has been offered to the reading public in the course of the past year, and Jeffrey Marks’ projected biography of Dannay and Lee, which should be out in 2015, contribute toward resurrecting the works of Queen.

    And speaking of kismet, another real indication of renewed interest in the works of Ellery Queen is evident on the very day this article is being posted.  Today, January 29, Calamity Town, a new play written by Joe Goodrich and based on the 1942 Queen novel that first introduced the upper New York State town of Wrightsville, has a "first reading" performance at the New Dramatists playhouse on West 44th Street in New York City.  Let's hope this is just the beginning for this latest Queen opus by Joe.

   There is also a new Ellery Queen pastiche (modesty compels me to not include the author in the foregoing list) coming out in EQMM sometime in the coming year.  And particularly eagerly awaited is the imminent re-issuance of 23 original titles in the Ellery Queen library, as reported by Janet Hutchings, editor of EQMM, in her editorial note following publication of Mike Nevin’s article End Time for Ellery? In the January 2013 issue of EQMM.  As Janet observed there, thanks to efforts such as Mike’s “Ellery Queen may soon enjoy a renaissance.”

    The once and future Queen?

11 October 2012

You Say Sensation, I Say Mystery...


by Eve Fisher

It was a dark and stormy night, and I've got to have something to read.  I'm sorry, but tonight, as the wind howls and the hail spatters against the window, I don't want anything new.  I don't want anything slick.  I don't want anything modern.  I want something familiar and satisfying.  Who do I fall back on? The Victorians:  Never underestimate the punch of a Victorian writer.  They pretty much began the mystery genre, under the much-maligned term "Sensation Novel", and don't get enough credit. If you have never read any of them, allow me to recommend three of the most famous and accessible:

File:Wilkie-Collins.jpgWilkie Collins' The Woman in White.  Here two young women's identities are stripped from them as one is declared dead, one is dead, and one is sent to a madhouse for life.  What happened?  Who died?  Who lived?  How can the truth be proven?  Besides an endlessly twisting and turning plot, there are amazing characters:  a magnificent heroine in Marion Halcombe, the ultimate Victorian cold-hearted bitch in Mrs. Catherick, and the worst guardian known to man, Frederick Fairlie, who really should have been shot at birth.  And then there's Count Fosco, one of my favorite villains in all of history, with a face like Napoleon's and the heft of Nero Wolfe.  Watch him as he plays with his little pet white mice and, at the same time, his irascible "friend" Sir Percival Glyde.  Meet his completely subservient wife, who spends her days rolling his cigarettes, watching his face, and doing his bidding.  He loves sugar water and pastry and plotting, and he never, ever loses his temper or raises his voice.  His only weakness?  A passionate admiration for Marion.  But can that actually stop him?  Don't count on it. 
(NOTE:  Collins' wrote many other novels, including The Moonstone, which I don't care for, actually, and Armadale, which is even MORE full of plot twists and turns than The Woman in White.  And Lydia Gwilt should scare the crap out of anyone...) 

In Mrs. Henry Wood's East Lynne, the ostensible main plot - and a true Victorian corker it is! - revolves around Isabel Vane, an Earl's daughter who, unbelievably, is reduced to poverty and marries an attorney (SO much beneath her in birth), Archibald Carlisle.  Mr. Carlisle is such a miracle of common sense, rectitude, honor, and beauty, that I have to admit after a while I get tired of hearing how wonderful he is.  It almost makes you cheer when she is eventually unfaithful to him with a former suitor, who gets her to run off with him, impregnates her, and abandons her (the "Lady!  Wife!  Mother!" scene is worth the read in and of itself).  Lost - in every sense of the word - and alone, Lady Isabel is believed killed in a railroad accident.  However, she is only disfigured beyond recognition (isn't that always the way?), and comes back to be the governess in her old home, to her own children, and to the children of her husband and his new wife, Barbara Hare. 
That in itself would keep almost any soap opera running for YEARS.  But what really fuels this sensation novel is the second plot, about the murder of a local gamekeeper, whose daughter, Aphrodite Hallijohn, was "involved" with multiple suitors, among them the clerk of courts (I can believe that one), a mysterious Captain, and Richard , the brother of the second Mrs. Carlisle.  Richard and Barbara are the children of the local Judge, and Judge Hare does his best throughout the novel to find, convict and hang his own son.  Barbara's whole goal in life (other than being the perfect wife to Mr. Carlisle) is to clear Richard's name.  Each and every character is involved in the solution to this murder, and the shifting identities of various people - at least three people live in disguise for major parts of the novel - are obstacles, keys, and clues to what really happened in that hut.  
(NOTE:  Mrs. Henry Wood wrote over thirty other novels, and among the best of the rest (imho) is The Channings.)  

Mrs. Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret curled many a person's hair back in the day, especially once it was revealed that what they thought was the secret - a secret that should be solved by anyone of moderate intelligence early on - is not The Secret at all.  Let's just say that Lady Audley is a work of art, and perhaps the source material for all suicide blondes.  Once again, a spicy Victorian stew of bigamy, mysterious deaths, hidden identities, even more mysterious (and convenient) arson, betrayal, adultery, heartache, and suspense, all served up at (for a Victorian novel) a fairly rapid clip. 
(NOTE:  Mrs. Braddon was another prolific author; second best novel is probably Aurora Floyd.)


Sensation Novels are often given a bad rap, but they were very well written, intricately plotted, and take you into the Victorian world in a way that few other books do.  Let's also not forget that, in their day, the Sherlock Holmes books would have been considered Sensation Novels - I mean, come on:  Polygamy!  Murder!  Hidden identities!  Revenge!  Giant devil hounds!  Granted, Sherlock Holmes transcended the genre - every genre - but he started in sensation.  And I'd love to debate someone about why Dickens is literature and Sensation Novels are not. 

By the way, Sensation Novels are also proof, once again, that reality must be watered down to be acceptable fiction.  The Victorian authors were an interesting bunch.  Wilkie Collins was an opium addict who had at least two concurrent families, and married the mother of neither of them.  Mrs. Henry Wood was married to an unemployed alcoholic, and her writing supported the family.  And Mrs. Braddon was involved for years in an adulterous relationship with her editor.  And when Jane Eyre came out, it was widely assumed that Mr. Rochester was based on William Makepeace Thackeray, whose wife was in an insane asylum, and who was believed to be having a long-running affair with his governess...   

All of these books, and many more, are available either new, used, or on Kindle. Please, check them out.  Those dark and stormy nights are coming back...  Next time, more Victorian murder mysteries!

04 July 2012

Five Red Herrings, the Second School


1.  Missed connection
On this blog and its predecessor I often write about my Work In Progress, whatever that happens to be.  On the rare and wonderful occasions when one of them turns into a Work In Print I usually mention the previous column, but this time I forgot.  My story "Shanks Commences" was published this spring, but I wrote about the process of writing it back in 2009  and I even quote a draft of it here. 

2.  Quite Interesting

This has nothing to with crime or writing, but I know a lot of us like puzzles.  Go to Youtube some time and search for QI Fry.  QI (Quite Interesting) is the most intellectually challenging quiz show you are likely to run across.  The questions are so deliberately obscure or tricky that the panelists are not expected to answer any of them correctly.  Therefore they get points for coming up with interesting wrong answers.  However, they are penalized for boring wrong answers (boring defined as any answer the show's writers predicted).    The panelists are usually comedians which keeps it entertaining. 

If one of our American networks every wants to bring their own version I know one of our citizens with the brains and wit to replace Stephen Fry as host: Ken Jennings.

3.  The Horror...The Horror
If you haven't had your recommended daily allotment of schadenfreude, let me commend you to this piece.  Mandy DeGeit writes horror fiction and she recently had her first story accepted for an anthology published by Undead Press.  She bought boxes of the book for friends and relatives and then made the mistake of opening one of them.  The title of her story appeared as:

“She Make’s Me Smile”

Okay.  So an apostrophe had wandered in where God never intended one to be.  Not so tragic if everything else is okay.  At least the editor didn't, for example, add a couple of paragraphs describing animal abuse that were not in the original piece.

Oh, wait.  The editor did that?

And more, as it turned out.  DeGeit wrote to the editor to discuss this and for her trouble she received a reply complaining about "unstable" and "ungrateful" writers.  And you thought you were having a bad day.


4.  Parks on the Road to Hell


I just discovered Richard Parks blog  courtesy of Sandra Seamans' invaluable blog My Little Corner. This is one of the best pieces about the importance of first lines I have come across.  Quite a different view than you usually hear.


5.  Dr. Doyle, call your office.

I have been reading the Mystery Writers of America Annual, which is provided to everyone who attends the Edgars Banquet, and then sent to other members.   One of the many essays is by Leslie S. Klinger, the editor of the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.  He mentions that after giving a presentation at a library he was thanked by an enthusiastic member of the audience.

"I'm so glad I came today," she said.  "I'm a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, and I didn't know there were books!"

Hoping life holds some pleasant surprises for you as well.

19 June 2012

Cross Talk


Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Hard cases make bad law.
                  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
                  Northern Securities Co. v. United States
                 193 U.S. 197 (Supreme Court, 1904)

“Have you never —” said Sherlock Holmes, bending forward and sinking his voice —“have you never heard of the Ku Klux Klan?”
“I never have.”
Holmes turned over the leaves of the book upon his knee. “Here it is,” said he presently:
“Ku Klux Klan. A name derived from the fanciful resemblance to the sound produced by cocking a rifle. This terrible secret society was formed by some ex-Confederate soldiers in the Southern states after the Civil War, and it rapidly formed local branches in different parts of the country, notably in Tennessee, Louisiana, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Its power was used for political purposes, principally for the terrorizing of the negro voters and the murdering and driving from the country of those who were opposed to its views. Its outrages were usually preceded by a warning sent to the marked man in some fantastic but generally recognized shape — a sprig of oak-leaves in some parts, melon seeds or orange pips in others. On receiving this the victim might either openly abjure his former ways, or might fly from the country. If he braved the matter out, death would unfailingly come upon him, and usually in some strange and unforeseen manner. So perfect was the organization of the society, and so systematic its methods, that there is hardly a case upon record where any man succeeded in braving it with impunity, or in which any of its outrages were traced home to the perpetrators. For some years the organization flourished in spite of the efforts of the United States government and of the better classes of the community in the South. Eventually, in the year 1869, the movement rather suddenly collapsed, although there have been sporadic outbreaks of the same sort since that date.”

                                                                           The Five Orange Pips
                                                                           Arthur Conan Doyle

    An Associated Press article caught my eye last week and propelled me back to the days, pre-retirement, when I was Deputy Assistant General Counsel for Litigation at the United States Department of Transportation.  The story involved the State of Georgia’s ruminations concerning what to do about an application filed by the Ku Klux Klan to participate in the Georgia adopt-a-highway program. 

    “Wait,” I hear you asking.  “What has this to do with mysteries, or with writing?”  At least tangentially the answer might be “quite a bit.”  This request by the Klan to participate in State-run programs that clean the nation’s highways through voluntary participation by local groups is not the first.  Over the past fifteen years  the Klan has repeatedly sought entry into the adopt-a-highway programs arguing that it has a right to participate  In a nutshell, the Klan’s argument is that they have a Constitutional right to participate in the program, and to have the State erect a road-side sign proclaiming that participation, under the First Amendment, which provides that the State shall enact no law abridging a party’s right to free expression.  The Klan argues that it is entitled to show and communicate to all that it is a “good citizen,” that it deserves to participate in the program on an equal footing with other organizations and that it is entitled to have its participation communicated to the general public on a road side sign erected by the State.   

    The adage quoted above from Justice Holmes got it completely correct.  This issue is a tough one, and its solution could spark unforeseen consequences.  Putting my cards on the table, I am a liberal.  And I think, as a liberal writer, that the First Amendment should be given the widest coverage possible.  The protection of the freely-written word is the hallmark of an open,  thinking and questioning society.  And the antithesis?  Well, we know from history what to expect of societies that burn books.  Oliver Wendell Holmes also wrote the following:  “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought -- not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

    But, not unsurprisingly, I (like Sherlock Holmes in The Five Orange Pips where one of the first references to the Klan appears) am no fan of the Ku Klux Klan.  I certainly do not welcome the Klan's participation in any State program.  And yet I recognize that this puts me on the wrong side of the second Holmes quote – my gut reaction is to bar them “for the thought that [I] hate.” 

Unite States' Brief to the Supreme Court

    So should Georgia simply grant the Klan’s application?  On further analysis the issue becomes even more complicated.  While in the government I had the opportunity to work on all of the prior adopt-a-highway cases involving Klan petitions.  I was the Deputy in the Department of Transportation’s litigation office, and that got me a ticket to the adopt-a-highway ball.  In my current status, that of “recovering attorney,” I am not privy to the particular stretch of Georgia highway that has now attracted the Klan’s attention.  But I know the stretches that they have tried to adopt in the past.

    In 1995 the Klan decided it would like to “police” a stretch of highway in front of a public housing project in Houston, Texas that was the subject of a desegregation order.  The Klan had already spearheaded a series of violent confrontations at the complex and had been enjoined by court order from being anywhere near the complex.  The petition to “police” the Texas highway was for the same stretch that the Klan was otherwise barred from.  The next mile that the Klan wanted to adopt was in downtown St. Louis Missouri – right in front of one of the oldest predominantly Black churches in the city.  Then they asked for a second mile in down-state Missouri – right in front of the home of a family that had adopted an oriental child (quite the “no-no” from the Klan’s perspective).   One can easily come away with the conclusion that these applications are not just about the Klan showing that it wants to be a good citizen.

    So the issue is the quintessential “hard case.”  On the one hand, a State government is understandably loath to turn these miles over to the Klan to patrol while gathering litter, and then also erect a State sign, for all to see, proclaiming the Klan’s participation in the State program.  On the other hand, denying these applications risks cutting back on the wide breadth of free expression guaranteed to all under the First Amendment, and does so on the basis (come on, let’s admit it) that we “hate” (there’s Justice Holmes’ word again) the whole reason for the existence of the Klan.

    In prior litigation raising these issues the United States was not a direct party – the adopt-a-highway programs are not Federal programs, they are administered by States.  The participation by the United States, therefore, was as amicus curiae – “friend of the court.”  In each case the United States attempted to walk a fine line – arguing that the Klan could be barred from the program while still protecting the breadth of the First Amendment.  The approach was successful in Texas, where the State's denial of the Klan’s petition to participate in the program was upheld, but unsuccessful in Missouri, where the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that the State’s denial abridged the Klan’s First Amendment rights to free speech and free expression.   While the Associate Press article referenced above states that the Supreme Court agreed with that proposition, this was not in fact correct.  Rather, and despite the United States’ arguments to the contrary, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case at all, thereby leaving the Eighth Circuit decision in place and unreviewed.

    What is the best way to untie this Gordian knot?  I don’t know.  This is going to be one of those mysteries that presently remains unsolved and is therefore something for each of us to ponder.

     One possible solution (and my own view on the issue) is a little “out of the box.”  When I was involved in these cases I used to argue (without a lot of success) that what is called for here is a slightly new approach to the First Amendment.  What speech are we talking about here, really?  We are talking about a sign, erected by the State, proclaiming that an organization has undertaken to police a stretch of State road in order to control litter.  Who is speaking here?  I would argue that the speaker is the State, not the organization.  It is, after all, the State that erects the sign and the State that decides what the message on the sign will be.  A limited number of cases have recognized that States, as well as individuals, have freedom of speech rights.  Can the State be compelled to erect a sign on behalf of the Klan? Doesn't this deprive the State of its own freedom of speech, it's own authority to not participate in the activities of the Klan?

    And what does that compelled State action do to other affected parties?  If you were driving down a highway and saw a sign that said “McDonalds Restaurants ahead:  1 mile, 12 miles” and then you saw a sign that said that the next mile of highway had been adopted by the Ku Klux Klan, at  which of those two McDonalds restaurants would you be inclined to stop for lunch?  I don’t know about you, but I would drive the extra 11 miles.  Is this fair to the McDonalds that happens to be located on the mile allowed by the State to be patrolled by the Klan?

    The particular mile that the Klan adopted in St. Louis, in addition to its proximity to that historic Black church, also is in front of the Anheuser Busch Brewery.  Should the brewery bear the commercial costs that might be associated with a picture showing both that State erected sign and the entrance to the brewery’s corporate headquarters, all in the same shot? 

    It seems to me that it is one thing for the Klan to have a right to express its views, even if (using Justice Holmes’ word) we “hate” those views.  But it is another thing entirely to say that the Klan has the ability to compel a State to participate, through the erection of a State-funded sign, in the dissemination of those views.  On this one, I am with Sherlock.  We know with what we are dealing.

    Just sayin.

04 April 2012

Five Red Herrings


1.  Did anyone else notice something odd about the March/April issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine?  There were fifteen stories and I am going to summarize the plots of eight of them.  No major spoilers here....

    * A tourist faces danger in the Caribbean.
    * A city hunter disappears in the north woods
    * A wealthy woman visiting 18th century Bath meets a charming rogue
    * A camper faces danger in a mountain park.
    * City kids on a fishing trip here a rumor about a possible serial killer
    * A girl's odd boyfriend wants to take her on a boating trip
    * Suspicious circumstances abound at a family resort
    * An ancient Roman citizen encounters murder in Asia


The theme of the issue seems to be: Stay home.  It's freaking dangerous out there.

Maybe so.

2.  My nephew Chris Messineo is the director of the New Jersey Film School.  Undone is the latest crime short-short put together by him and his students.  The young lady is his daughter Joanna.  I can't get the video to embed here but you can find it here.


3.  Amazing article in the New York Times.    Nothing in it quite rises to the level of crime, unless you want to use words like negligence, I suppose, but boy, you could sure write half a dozen crime stories based on it.

Briefly, the University of California - Berkeley misplaced a piece of art that was in their care.  Worse, it arguably belonged to the federal government.

So what was this little doodad they lost track of?  Only a  23-foot long sculpture, worth over a million bucks.  How do you lose that, much less sell it as surplus - for a hundred and fifty bucks, plus tax?  (I'm glad they got the tax, to keep it all  legit).  Too bad they couldn't find an art expert to assess the piece for them - like, I don't know, maybe at the University of California- Berkeley?

Happy ending: it wound up in a library.


4.  On the Short Mystery Fiction List recently they were discussing framing versus flashbacks as ways of telling a story and I remembered that I had written about that on Criminal Brief.    What I did not recall was that the ornery story I complained about in that piece - because I was having trouble with figuring out a way to tell the opening scenes - was "Shanks Commences," currently appearing in the May issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  So I guess I solved that problem.


5.   Ever hear of James Payn?  He was a Victorian novelist and I believe his books have been forgotten, but he has one eternal claim to fame.  True story: In 1886, as editor of Cornhill Magazine, he rejected A Study in Scarlet.  Yup, the first Sherlock Holmes novel wasn't good enough for his mag.  You have to wonder what he published in that issue instead, don't you?

In his honor, every time I get a rejection I say "What a Payn!"

Written apologies available on request.