Showing posts with label Terence Faherty. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Terence Faherty. Show all posts

25 March 2014

My First Farewell Post

by Terence Faherty

This post ends my year and my career as a regular contributor to the SleuthSayers blog, though I'll be available to pinch-hit whenever one of the group needs a break.  I'd like to thank Leigh Lundin and Robert Lopresti for giving me this opportunity and for their patience while I learned (but never mastered) the software.  I'd also like to thank the other writers on the blog for their encouragement and comments, especially Dale C. Andrews, with whom I've shared Tuesdays (and the daunting job of preparing the retrospective posts for SleuthSayers' second anniversary).  I hope to actually meet Dale someday, maybe at a baseball game. 

In place of blogging, I'm going to be devoting more time to promoting a new book, The Quiet Woman, which will be published by Five Star in June.  It's quite a departure for me, as it's my first stand-alone mystery and my first comic/romantic/supernatural one, at least in book form.  (I now see some of my Alfred Hitchcock stories as baby steps in that direction.) I'll write more about The Quiet Woman closer to its release, if my replacement will relinquish a Tuesday.  That replacement, incidentally, is David Dean, a man who needs no introduction to regular SleuthSayers readers, since he's the writer I replaced one year ago.  He's spent that year working on a new book, about which I hope he'll write in this space.

I'm sorry that so few of my twenty-odd posts had to do with mystery writing and that so many were about old movies and forgotten actors and authors, though many of my favorite posts by other contributors have also wandered far in the subject matter field.  Many of these favorites have been magazine quality, in my opinion, both in terms of writing and word count.  The latter I attribute to good time management, something at which I've never excelled, as the following account of my approach to blog writing, inspired by Eve Fisher's recent Robert Benchley post, will demonstrate.

As near as I can reconstruct, my two-week blog-writing cycle has gone something like this.

Through the miracle of Blogger.com, my column appears on a Tuesday.  All is right with the world.  I can hold my head up in any gathering of productive human beings, though I can't remember the last time I attended such a gathering.  This happy glow stays with me until Thursday, when it's eclipsed by the bright rays of the approaching weekend.

Sometime during that weekend, I panic, until a quick check of my desk calendar confirms that the looming Tuesday belongs to Dale Andrews.  Sure enough, Dale's column appears as if by magic on the appointed day.  It might even give me an idea for a post of my own.  If it doesn't, no problem.  I have a week to work one out.

A week being much more time than I need, I don't actually use the whole thing.  That would be wasteful.  In fact, I spend so much of my week not being wasteful that, before I know it, another weekend arrives.  Sometime late on Sunday, I wonder, idly, what Dale will write about this week.  Maybe he's traveling down south again.  He seems to travel more than John Kerry.  That's the life, escaping the cold snow for the warm sand and trading juncos for sanderlings.  I can almost hear the waves. . .

I awake in a cold sweat with the realization that the approaching Tuesday, whose skirmishers are even now topping the nearest hill, is my Tuesday.  To arms!  To arms! 

Okay, maybe that isn't exactly how my average fortnight has gone, but it's close enough that just recounting it has caused my heart to race.  When it settles down, I'll get to work on a new book, following Mr. Dean's example.  In the meantime, thanks very much for visiting.

11 March 2014

Women Sleuths of the Silver Screen

by Terence Faherty

In a recent post, I considered some minor mystery movie series, closing with the promise that I'd follow up someday regarding movie series featuring female detectives.  A more recent column by Leigh Lundin reminded me that March is "Women's History Month" and, more specifically, "Women in Mystery Month." So why not "Women in Mystery Movie Series Month" as well? It seems like a good fit.

I know of three such series from the 1930s, and each is worth a look.  (Each shows up on TCM from time to time.) All three series had literary antecedents, two now obscure and one still famous.  The three protagonists are surprisingly diverse, given that they were battling crime at more or less the same moment in time. 

Hildegarde Withers

A Boston school teacher turned amateur sleuth, Hildegarde Withers was the creation of Stuart Palmer, novelist, short story writer (including two Sherlock Holmes pastiches), screenwriter, and president of the Mystery Writers of America.  Withers debuted in The Penquin Pool Murder in 1931.  Withers reappeared regularly through the early fifties and even had two titles released in the sixties, with Palmer sharing credit with writing partners, including Craig Rice (Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig).  Withers, a comic take on Miss Marple,  is a busybody crime solver.  Much of the humor derives from her clashes with a tough New York police inspector, Oscar Piper.

With RKO producing, Withers made it to the big screen only a year after her literary debut, in a film version of that debut, The Penquin Pool Murder.  She was played by the great Edna May Oliver, an actress with a long face and a great way with an acerbic line.  A native of Massachusetts who specialized in independent and cranky characters, Oliver was born to play Withers.  She followed up Penquin Pool with two more, Murder on the Blackboard (1934) and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935).  All three benefit from James Gleason's performance as Piper.  After Honeymoon, Oliver left RKO for MGM, where she graced big-budget costume pictures like Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice until her untimely death in 1942, age 59.  Following Oliver's departure, RKO tried three more Withers films, staring first Helen Broderick (not good) and then Zazu Pitts (worse).  Later, there were two television Withers, Agnes Morehead in a failed 1950s pilot and  Eve Arden in a 1972 television film, A Very Missing Person.

Hildegarde Withers (Edna May Oliver) and Oscar Piper (James Gleason)

Any of the Oliver films is worth catching.  My favorite is Murder on a Honeymoon, which features location footage shot on Catalina Island, an uncommon thing in a film of that period.

Torchy Blane

One of old Hollywood's favorite stock characters was the plucky female reporter.  She could pop up in A pictures like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) in the person of a genuine star like Jean Arthur or in B pictures like Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) in the person of a contract player like Glenda Farrell.  Farrrell was a member of the Warner Bros. stock company, and as such was as likely to play a gold digger in a Busby Berkeley musical as a gun moll in a gangster picture.  The Warners films of the early thirties were known for their rapid pacing and general brassiness.  Farrell, a brassy blonde who was to wisecracking what Edna May Oliver was to superciliousness, fit right in.  Warners eventually gave Farrell her own series, in which she played a crime-solving newswoman, Torchy Blane.

The series was inspired by a story Warners had purchased from Fredrick Nebel, a pulp writer who published in Black Mask alongside Hammett and Chandler.  Nebel's original story featured a hard drinking male reporter who competed against and knocked heads with a cop named McBride.  Warners switched the reporter's gender, renamed him (or rather, her) Torchy Blane, and started cranking them out.  McBride was played by Barton MacLaine, and he became Blane's love interest as well as her professional rival.  Blane would stop at nothing to solve the crime and get the story, including exploiting her relationship with McBride. The films were light and, at around an hour each, lightning paced.  Of the nine films released between 1936 and 1939, seven starred Farrell, with Lola Lane and future Oscar winner Jane Wyman each stepping in for one.

Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell) and Steve McBride (Barton MacLaine)

Farrell's take on the wisecracking blonde went out of style when the thirties went west, but she kept acting, sometimes in smaller movie roles, sometimes on the stage or on television.  She died in harness in 1972, age 66, and was buried at West Point beside her second husband, an army doctor who had served on Eisenhower's staff.

Leonard Maltin calls Smart Blonde (1936) the best of the Torchy Blane films, and I'll bow to his expertize.

Nancy Drew

Carson Drew's only child debuted in book form in 1930 and has been solving crimes (and lying about her age) ever since.  The brainchild of the genius book packager Edward Stratemeyer, the books, written under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene (originally by Mildred Wirt Benson) were an immediate success.

In 1938, Nancy Drew made it to the big screen courtesy of Torchy Blane's studio, Warner Bros. She was played by a young actress with a name that always sounded to me like it should have belonged to an old actress:  Bonita Granville.  Granville was a movie veteran in 1938, having made her debut in 1933 at age nine. (Her most famous child role was an Oscar-nominated turn in These Three, the original film version of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour.)  Granville first played the girl sleuth in Nancy Drew, Detective, based on The Password to Larkspur Lane.  Three more films followed in 1939, the last being Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.  Carson Drew was played by Warners regular John Litel, and Frankie Thomas played Nancy's boyfriend (with his book name, Ned Nickerson, changed to Ted Nickerson for reasons best known to Warners).

The films were short, fast-paced, and Nancy was both the brains and heart of the outfit (though some critics found Granville insufficiently intrepid).  I'd recommend the last one, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.  (And not just because it has a title I remember fondly.)

Ted Nickerson (Frankie Thomas) and Nancy Drew (Bonita Granville)

Though she remains a publishing franchise and has spun off into new areas like video games, Nancy Drew's screen afterlife hasn't been much more impressive than Hildegarde Withers'.  There would be only one more big screen attempt, Nancy Drew, a 2007 film released by her old studio, Warner Bros., starring Emma Roberts.  There also was a television show, which premiered in 1977, with Pamela Sue Martin in the role.  (Drew was eventually squeezed out of that by her co-detectives, the Hardy Boys.)  A 2002 made-for-television movie, also simply called Nancy Drew, starred Maggie Lawson of Psych fame.      

Granville would remain with Warner Bros. long enough to appear in support of Betty Davis in Now Voyager.  When her acting career wound down, Granville became a television producer. She died (just when she was getting old enough for her name) in 1988, age 65, of lung cancer, like fellow Warners alumnus Glenda Farrell.    

25 February 2014

Something in the Water

by Terence Faherty

P.G. Wodehouse
In earlier posts, I've mentioned my admiration for two writers:  P.G. Wodehouse, the great humorist and creator of Bertie Wooster, and Raymond Chandler, one of the founders of the hard-boiled private eye school and the creator of Philip Marlowe.  I proudly claim both as influences on my own humble writing.  At first glance, Wodehouse and Chandler would seem to have little in common (besides me).  But there are interesting parallels.  Both men wrote popular fiction for a wide audience but attracted their share of admirers in ivy-covered halls.  Both were wonderful prose stylists, admired by the likes of Evelyn Waugh, despite the handicap of never having set foot inside a university.  And, speaking of schools, both went to the same one at almost the same time. 

Raymond Chandler
Seriously?  The very British and frivolous Wodehouse and the very American and serious Chandler at the same school?  Yes, Dulwich College, outside London, England.  In spite of the college part of its name, Dulwich (pronounced dull itch) is a public school (pronounced private school), a very exclusive prep school.  It was founded in 1619 by Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe's favorite actor, Edward Alleyn.  Wodehouse arrived in 1894 and stayed until 1900.  Chandler arrived in 1900 and stayed until 1905.  So they might have just missed one another, if Wodehouse departed at the end of the spring term and Chandler arrived at the start of the fall term.  (In Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, edited by Frank MacShane, the mystery writer mentions Wodehouse, but doesn't say whether they'd met.) 

Dulwich College
Was there something in the Dulwich water that stimulated great prose writing?  Was there a particular headmaster or a teacher on the staff who inspired and encouraged these two students?  I'd love to know.  If there's a doctoral candidate out there who's stuck for a thesis topic, he or she should snag this one, delve deeply into the subject, and report back to me.  As an added inducement to potential deep delvers, here are some additional  parallels between the two men.

Both were separated from one or both parents at an early age.  Wodehouse was farmed out to boarding schools and relatives in England while his parents lived overseas.  Chandler and his mother were deserted by his father.  The pair moved to England in part because Chandler's mother hoped to educate her son more cheaply there.  After Dulwich, both men tried conventional jobs, Wodehouse in banking and Chandler in civil service, and both soon quit to try journalism.  Wodehouse made a success of that and honed his prose style while contributing to various papers and magazines.  Chandler didn't; he returned to America, worked his way up in the oil industry and only returned to writing when he lost his job due to the Depression (and his drinking).  He then honed his own prose style writing for pulp magazines.

Both men tried their hands at screenwriting in Hollywood, with varying degrees of success.  Both married but neither had children.  Wodehouse loved mysteries and had fairly catholic tastes, enjoying Edgar Wallace, Ngaio Marsh (whose Inspector Alleyn spelled his name the same way as Dulwich's Edward Alleyn), Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Arthur Conan Doyle.  But then, mysteries were an escape for Wodehouse, not being his bread and butter.  They weren't an escape for Chandler, and he tended to be critical of other mystery writers, especially Golden Age writers like Christie.

C.S. Forester
In a recent post, I mentioned my love of coincidences.  While researching this brief column, I ran into another one.  Around the same time I was snubbing Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in favor of Wodehouse and Chandler, another of my favorite writers was C.S. Forester, author of the Horatio Hornblower series, among many other popular novels (including some fairly noir crime stories).  No points for guessing where Forester spent his prep school days.  Yep, good old Dulwich, from 1915 to 1916.

I wish now that during my one and only trip to England I'd stopped by Dulwich and tried the local water.  It couldn't have hurt. 

11 February 2014

Minor Movie Series vs. the Thin Man Effect

by Terence Faherty

Some time back I wrote about the big three of the old-time mystery movie series, the Thin Man, Sherlock Holmes, and Charlie Chan series.  In that column, I noted how popular mystery series were with audiences of the thirties and forties, just as popular, in fact, as mystery television series are today. I also mentioned then that I might return to the subject from time to time to consider "minor" series.  Here is just such a return visit, though with a twist, as I'd also like to consider the balance between comedy and detection in the mystery.  A discussion of B-movies series is a great place to discuss this balance, because, in your humble correspondent's humble opinion, more than one series tumbled into obscurity when the balance was lost.  

The Balancing Act

Anyone who decides to use humor in a mystery story, and that's a fair number of writers these days, faces a balancing act:  how much humor to how much mystery element.  The recipe varies from writer to writer, just as a taste for humor in the mystery varies from reader to reader.  The men and women who wrote B-movie mystery series in the thirties tended to err on the side of humor, since these films were light entertainment meant to fill out a film program.  For my money, what gave humor the upper hand was the amazing success of The Thin Man, staring William Powell and Myrna Loy and released in 1934.  Prior to that money making machine, mysteries tended to be a  little more serious, afterward, less so.  Unfortunately, nobody could match Powell and Loy's comic technique (or the crisp direction of W.S. Van Dyke), and few even came close, so what I'll call the "Thin Man Effect" wasn't always a positive thing.  For an example, compare the original Maltese Falcon of 1930, pre-Thin Man, with its first (loose) remake, Satan Met a Lady from 1936, post-Thin Man.  The first is straight and memorable, the second silly and forgettable, despite the presence in the cast of a young Betty Davis.

Here's my personal position, nailed to the cathedral door:  Though I enjoy reading P.G. Wodehouse as much as I do Raymond Chandler, when it comes to a mystery story, I want the mystery elements to hold the upper hand.  (And not just against humor; I want mystery to win out over romantic elements in romantic mysteries, over small-town interactions in cozy mysteries, and against existential angst in noir mysteries.  Even against literary flourishes in literary mysteries.)  The following film series demonstrate the pitfalls of tilting the balance the other way. 

Perry Mason

Warren Willams
No series was more adversely affected by the Thin Man Effect than the Perry Mason films made by Warner Bros.  In the first entry, 1934's The Case of the Howling Dog, Mason (played by Warren Williams) was a serious investigator, not unlike the later television incarnation created by Raymond Burr.  But by the second entry, released on the heels of The Thin Man, Mason, still played by Williams, was transformed into a hard-drinking gourmet who can barely be bothered with the crime.  By the time Williams left the series two films later, Mason was almost a lush, a la early Nick Charles.  There were two more films post Williams, and they came somewhat back to earth, but the damage had been done.  It would be years before an authentic Mason returned to the (small) screen.

Ellery Queen

Ralph Bellamy
For this mystery fan, one of the great lost opportunities of the 1940s was the Ellery Queen series made by Columbia, starting in 1940.  Ellery Queen was at or near the height of his considerable popularity back then, thanks to a string of successful books, none of which portrayed him as a bumbling idiot.  But that was exactly the way he was played first by Ralph Belamy (four films) and then by William Gargan (three films).  Neither actor was young enough or cerebral enough to play Ellery, who comes across in these programmers as too dumb to read books, never mind write them.  It was an inexplicable decision, all the more so because a successful radio show, The Adventures of Ellery Queen had debuted in 1939.  Its Ellery, played by Hugh Marlowe, was much more faithful to the books.  Why ignore that successful model?  I blame the Thin Man Effect.         

Boston Blackie

Chester Morris
Hollywood never met a gentleman jewel thief it didn't love, from the venerable Raffles to Michael Lanyard (the Lone Wolf) to John Robie (the Cat).  Boston Blackie's literary roots went back as far as those of Raffles, and there were even Blackie films in the silent era.  But he didn't get a series until Chester Morris took on the part in 1940.  Morris was a square-jawed actor who would have made a great Dick Tracy, if he could have kept himself from smiling.  As Blackie, he didn't have to try, as the films made by Columbia between 1940 and 1948 were lighter than air.  The plots were very similar.  Blackie, a reformed thief, would be in the wrong place at the wrong time, often because he was trying to help some poor soul, often a beautiful Columbia starlet.  He would then spend the rest of the movie's very brief running time clearing his name.

I don't mean to suggest that this series was a failure.  Far from it.  They were popular enough to run to fourteen installments, two more than Universal's Sherlock Holmes series.  But Blackie was a much tougher character in print and might have been on the big screen, even with the debonair Morris in the part.  That he wasn't is another example of the Thin Man Effect.  

Nick Carter

Walter Pidgeon
MGM, the same studio that had struck gold with Nick Charles, tried again in 1939 with a Nick who had appeared in print before Sherlock Holmes:  Nick Carter.  The brief movie series had little in common with the Nick Carter dime-novels that began appearing in 1886, except for the hero's name and some "outlandish" plotting, to quote film critic Leonard Maltin.  The three-picture run starred Walter Pidgeon, before that actor hitched his wagon to Greer Garson's star.  It aimed for a light and breezy tone, but was often only silly.  This silliness was embodied by Carter's self-appointed sidekick, the Bee-Man.  Played by Donald Meek, the Bee-Man kept live bees in his pocket for timely use against bad guys.  (I am not making this up.)  It gave a whole new meaning to B-movie.

In my next installment, if I have one, I'll look at series featuring female sleuths.       
         

28 January 2014

Flannery O'Connor on Writing

by Terence Faherty



Flannery O'Connor
Some time back I wrote a post inspired by a haunting quote from Flannery O'Conner, the great southern novelist and short story writer.  Here's that quote.

"The writer can chose what he writes about, but he cannot chose what he is able to bring to life."

In the course of researching that article, I ran into a few other things Flannery had to say about writing and about mystery.  What follows amounts to a guest column, typed (and commented upon) by me but "ghost written" by Ms. O'Connor.

"Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.  I'm always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality.  It is a plunge into reality and it is very shocking to the system." (Amen.)

"The writer should never be ashamed of staring.  There is nothing that does not require his attention."

"Art never responds to the wish to make it more democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those willing to undertake the effort to understand it."

"Manners are of such great consequence to the novelist that any kind will do."  (Ouch.)

"People without hope not only don't write novels, but what is more to the point, they don't read them."

"I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say."  (Nancy Pelosi may have lifted this.)

"Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and it you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction.  It's not grand enough for you."

"Not writing is a good deal worse than writing."

"Mystery isn't something that is gradually evaporating.  It grows along with knowledge."  (My amateur sleuth, Owen Keane, is now nodding his head.)

"Remember that you don't write a story because you have an idea but because you have a character."

"There is a certain embarrassment about being a storyteller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics; but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells."

"I am a writer because writing is the best thing I do."


   

14 January 2014

What are the Odds?

by Terence Faherty

In The Dark Knight Rises, the third film in the latest Batman cycle, Commissioner Gordon, played by Gary Ohlman, tells a young policeman played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "You're a detective now, son.  You're not allowed to believe in coincidence."

The same admonition might be made to every writer who undertakes a mystery story or book.  In fact, I've heard it paraphrased on Boucheron panels (the highest possible authority) and read it in how-to books.  Eliminate coincidence. 

The goal is understandable.  It's unsatisfying for the reader to plow through a mystery novel in the wake of the fearless detective only to have that detective solve the mystery because he happens to see a billboard that makes him think of something or bumps into a character who holds the vital clue.  A related and equally irritating device was a favorite of B-movie writers in old Hollywood and still pops up in the B movies direct descendant, television.  When all seems foggiest, the hero's sidekick will make an extraneous remark that gives the hero a much needed kick in the old mental pants.  You know this has happened when the hero says, "Say that again!"  The sidekick will then repeat the wrong part of what he or she just said to further prolong the "suspense."

But while the goal of eliminating coincidence is understandable, overemphasizing that goal  weakens the mystery's chances of being mistaken for serious literature.  Coincidences occur in real life, so eliminating them makes a mystery story less like real life and more like a puzzle. 

I collect real-life coincidences, which I find fascinating.  One of my favorites was passed on to me a few years ago by my wife, Jan.  She was attending a football game at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, with old friends from her sorority pledge class none of whom had seen the others in twenty years.  During the first half, the woman on Jan's left (I'll call her
Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium
Lois) remarked that she was hoping to visit someone while she was in town, the pharmacist who had given her a part-time job when she was an undergraduate.  Later, the woman on Jan's right (I'll call her Mary) said that her son, a Purdue student, was attending the game and would stop by at halftime to be introduced.  Sure enough, at halftime Mary's son showed up.  He mentioned in passing that he had scored a great seat for the game, right next to an interesting old guy who had run a pharmacy in West Lafayette years before.  Right.   He was none other than Lois's old employer.  In a stadium that holds well over 60,000 souls, Mary's son just happened to be seated next to him.



History is, of course, full of coincidences.  Just last week, I ran into a beauty.  Or rather, a whole string of beauties.  The U.S.S. Ward, a destroyer, is generally credited with being the
The U.S.S. Ward
first American ship to engage the enemy in World War II.  Under the command of Lieutenant Commander William Outerbridge, the Ward attacked and sank a Japanese submarine attempting to enter Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, shortly before the Japanese carrier planes arrived.  Destroyers are named after naval heroes.  So who was the original Ward?  He was James Warren Ward, the first naval officer killed in the Civil War.  That's right.  The first ship to engage the enemy in one long, bloody war was named after the first naval officer to die in another long, bloody war.  Not coincidental enough?  How's this? After serving under different commanders in different Pacific actions, the Ward met her fate off the Philippines when she was struck by a Japanese kamikaze.  That occurred on December 7, 1944, three years to the day after the Ward fired the starting gun for the whole Pacific campaign.  But wait, as the hucksters say
The last fight of the Ward
on television, there's more.  The kamikaze started uncontrollable fires on the ship, and the crew abandoned her.  Another destroyer, the U.S.S. O'Brien was called up to finish off the wreck.  The O'Brien was named for Jeremiah O'Brien, an American commander at the Battle of Machias, the first naval action of the American Revolution.  So the first ship to fire on the enemy in World War II, which was named for the first officer to die in the Civil War, was sunk by a ship named for the man who won the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War.  Holy synchronicity, Batman!  (The fact that I just paraphrased Burt Ward in a paragraph about the U.S.S. Ward is purely coincidental.)  Can I top that?  As a matter of fact, I can.  On December 7, 1944, the O'Brien was commanded by William Outerbridge, the same man who had commanded the Ward at Pearl Harbor three years earlier.  What are the odds?


Let's get back to mystery writing.  If coincidences are a part of life and eliminating them slavishly makes a book less real to life but using them to resolve a mystery plot is unsatisfying, what's the answer?  It is to use coincidence, if you've a mind to, at the beginning of the story, as the thing that sets the plot in motion.  It could be a chance remark that answers a long-unanswered question and so leads to murder.  Agatha Christie used that one.  It could be a scrap of old, foreign newspaper that happens to contain a story of vital interest to the person who happens to find it.  Dorothy Sayers used that one.  It could be the accidental coming together of old friends or enemies or comrades in arms in an unlikely place.  Los Angeles, say.  Raymond Chandler used that one.  All three of those writers had long and happy careers.  Not coincidentally.  

31 December 2013

Good-bye, 2013, Good-bye, Audrey Totter!

by Terence Faherty

Audrey Totter
Many superstitious people will breathe a sigh of relief tonight--or rather, tomorrow morning at 12:01 a.m., when 2013 heads west.  It takes with it the usual carload of movie celebrities, a few of whom will be honored at the Oscars in March.  A much more comprehensive tribute is currently airing on Turner Classic Movies.  Tucked away among the bigger names--Eleanor Parker, Joan Fontaine, Peter O'Toole, etc.--is one that resonated for me:  Audrey Totter.  She died on December 12 at age 96. 


Totter and Robert Taylor,
up to their necks in noir
Totter, an apple-cheeked blonde, was a femme fatale of film noir.  She wasn't in the class of Joan Bennett or Claire Trevor or Ava Gardner, stars who dipped a toe in noir.  Totter was more like Jane Greer, a contract-player-grade actress for whom the noir flowering of the late 1940s was a career high point.  Totter was in the original The Postman Always Rings Twice (though outshone by a luminous Lana Turner), The Unsuspected, The High Wall, and The Set-Up, to name a few.

My favorite Totter film is Lady in the Lake, perhaps the strangest of the Raymond Chandler adaptations--at least until Robert Altman happened along.  The film stars Robert Montgomery, who also directed, so he may be responsible for some of the strangeness.   Two of the odd features are relatively minor:  the movie is set at Christmastime (the opening credits feature carols and Christmas cards) and Philip Marlowe is both a P.I. and an aspiring writer.  (Everyone secretly wants to be a mystery writer, even characters in mysteries.)

The film's major oddity is that, for the bulk of its running time, the camera takes the place of Marlowe.  We see what he sees and only see Marlowe when he chances to look at a reflective surface.  Some sources claim that this gimmick was intended as a substitute for the distinctive first-person voice of the novel.  If so, it was an odd choice, as it did nothing to replicate Marlowe's voice that a simple voice-over couldn't have done better.  In fact, it makes the movie so static that it could be called a barely-movie.  It also put a lot of pressure on the supporting cast, who had to play directly to the camera.  Totter headed that group and so had most of the close-ups.  Luckily, she could handle them.

Totter from Lady in the Lake, Philip Marlowe (Robert
Montgomery) seen as hand (left) and reflection in the mirror 

Though not entirely successful, Lady in the Lake will be around for a while, in part because it's the novel's only film adaptation, in part because it was so experimental.  So Totter, who died during the Christmas season, will be seen in her prime amidst the trappings of Christmas for years to come.

Totter's death prompted a couple of thoughts.  One is that a life as long as hers makes the person in question seem almost like a time traveler.  Woodrow Wilson was president when she was born, an amazing thing.  Her Lake co-star, Robert Montgomery, who had a relatively long life for a World War II veteran, died in 1981, thirty-two years ago.  John Garfield, of Postman fame, who had a relatively short life (thirty-nine years), died in 1952, sixty-one years ago.  By his standards, Totter was granted two lifetimes and was eighteen years into a third.

The other thought is one more appropriate to this day, a day given over to life assessments and future dreams.  It is that any person working in a creative field, be it a femme fatale actress or a mystery writer, will be lucky to be remembered.  That person will be luckier still if his or her work lives on for a time.  My toast tonight will be that all of our best work will!     

17 December 2013

Pastiche or Parody?

by Terence Faherty

First, a little shameless self-promotion.  The new issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the February number, starts with one story of mine and ends with another, which I consider a career highlight, right up there with being published in Queen for the first time in 1999.  In between those bookend stories, the February issue contains six other tales, including a great one by SleuthSayers alumnus David Dean, "Murder Town."  My contributions are two Sherlock Holmes parodies:  "The Red-Headed League" and "A Case of Identity."  These stories are follow-ups to "A Scandal in Bohemia," which Queen ran last year.  It was my first Holmes parody.

Or do I mean pastiche?  That's the question that occupies me today:  Am I writing parody or pastiche?  Ellery Queen straddles the fence, referring to my stories as parodies here and pastiches there.  Could they be both?  Could parody be a form of pastiche?  That seems reasonable to me, but not to Wikipedia, the all knowing.  It defines pastiche as a "work of visual art, literature, or music that imitates the style or character of the work of one or more other artists.  Unlike parody, pastiche celebrates, rather than mocks, the work it imitates." 


Mr. Wodehouse and cigar
That last bit seems a little harsh to me.  Surely every parody isn't a mocking one.  Some, at least, could be thought of as affectionate.  The Holmes parodies written by P.G. Wodehouse, the great English humorist, fall into that category, I think.  Wodehouse loved the detective fiction of his day, but he was aware of its shortcomings, especially the stories of the "Great Detective" school, which includes the Holmes tales.  I quoted one of Wodehouse's insights on the dedication page of my first short story collection, The Confessions of Owen Keane:  "A detective is only human.  The less of a detective, the more human he is." 

Back to my own Holmes pastiches/parodies.  I refer to this series of stories in my journal and my filing system as The Notebooks of Dr. John H. Watson.  The conceit is simple enough.  Recently unearthed notebooks have been found to contain first drafts of Watson's immortal Sherlock Holmes stories.  (Yes, I know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually wrote the stories, but Doyle gave the credit to Watson, so I do too.)  And while a given first draft bears a certain resemblance to the famous story of the same name (which I'll refer to as "the Strand version"), each is really quite different.  Holmes is more of a blue-collar, working detective with blue-collar tastes (principally a taste for beer) in Watson's first drafts, and the cases he undertakes are a little more "down-market" as well.  And the solutions are always different.

When I write one of these, I first reread the Strand version looking for a "back door," an alternative way into the story for purposes of reimagining its basic events.  Sometimes the back door is an alternative solution, as it was for the two parodies Queen published this year.  Sometimes it's a famous "problem" with the story, something about it that's bugged generations of Sherlockian scholars.  An example might be the fabulous coronet that a distinguished personage (the Prince of Wales?) pawns in "The Beryl Coronet," a piece of public property that he has no right to pawn.  Resolving that problem can suggest an entirely new take on the tale.  Sometimes the back door is simply an ambivalent title, as in the case of "A Scandal in Bohemia."  Since "Bohemia" can refer to both a geographical region (as it does in the Strand version) and a lifestyle, simply switching the meaning can suggest an entirely different course of events.

The fun for me is trying to make these read as though they might actually be first drafts by including items that Watson can adapt for his final versions, like the plumber's smoke rocket that creates havoc in my "Scandal in Bohemia" and clearly inspires the smoke rocket device that works so well in Watson's "Scandal."  I also enjoy putting in allusions that I hope  Sherlockians will spot and enjoy.  My source for these is often Leslie S. Klinger's wonderful The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.  In his notes for the "The Red-headed League," for example, he tells us that Holmes and Watson's trip on the underground in that story is the only one mentioned in the entire canon.  I explain that in passing (claustrophobia).

Speaking of allusions, I also use a few turns of phrase familiar to lovers of the works of the aforementioned Mr. Wodehouse, like Holmes "getting outside of three pints of bitter (beer) in record time."   These stories are meant to be funny, so I strive for a Wodehousian tone throughout.  I don't think P.G. would mind, and I like to think Sir Arthur wouldn't either.  Because my parodies, defined in Faherty's Collegiate Dictionary as a time-honored subset of pastiche, are nothing if not affectionate.   

26 November 2013

My Hit List Strikes Again

by Terence Faherty

Last June I posted My Hit List, a list of thirty of my favorite mystery/crime films, many of them obscure and forgotten.  (Okay, most of them obscure and forgotten.)  Just to show that I can do this all day long, here are another thirty films for which I'm thankful on this Thanksgiving week.  

I'm once again purposely avoiding mystery series, about which I've also posted and may post again when you least expect it.  And again, I've passed over some better known and undeniably great films, like The Big Sleep and Chinatown, because they don't need a plug from me.  Even without the former title, the films of the 1940s are overrepresented here, as they were in my original list.  What can I say?  The forties were to mysteries what the fifties were to westerns and the sixties to Annette Funicello pictures.  A golden age.

I hope you've had a chance to sample a couple of films from the original list and that you'll also try a few of the following guaranteed gems.


1930s

The Phantom of Crestwood (1932)
A real curiosity.  A movie based on a radio serial with an ending voted on by listeners (or so the producers claimed).  The solid cast is headed up by Ricardo Cortez, the movies' first Sam Spade.

Star of Midnight (1935)
William Powell of The Thin Man fame in a Thin Man knockoff, with Ginger Rodgers. 

The Princess Comes Across (1936)
Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray in a comic mystery set aboard an ocean liner.  (What did you think the title meant?)  MacMurray even sings.

Night Must Fall (1937)
Robert Montgomery established his acting chops in this film version of the famous Emlyn Williams play about a brutal killer in rural England.


1940s

The Glass Key (1942)
An underappreciated Dashiell Hammett novel becomes the best of the Alan Ladd/ Veronica Lake teamings.  William Bendix is a truly scary bad guy.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Former musical star Dick Powell is a believable Philip Marlowe, at least until he takes off his shirt.  The great Claire Trevor is in support in this adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely.

The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Many people would pick this as the best of the Ladd/Lake pictures.  I think it's only a close second, in part because the original script, by Raymond Chandler, was watered down during filming.  Another solid supporting turn by William Bendix.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
What long-ago crime binds Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas?  Noir regular Lizabeth Scott would like to know.
  
Riffraff (1947)
Graying but game Pat O'Brien versus oil field hijackers in Panama with the aid of Anne

Jeffreys.

The Unsuspected (1947)
Actually, you will suspect the solution before it's revealed, but the cast, which includes Claude Rains and three striking blondes (Constance Bennett, Audrey Totter, and Joan Caufield), makes this worthwhile. 

Force of Evil (1948)
Very short, very intense noir film features John Garfield as a glib mob lawyer.  The always good Thomas Gomez is especially so here.

The Big Clock (1948)
Ray Milland is a magazine editor assigned to head up a murder investigation.  Every clue his staff turns up points to. . . Ray Milland.  Charles Laughton plays his oily boss.

Criss Cross (1949)
More noir with Burt Lancaster running afoul of Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea.

 

1950s

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, and director Otto Preminger, all Laura veterans, reunite for a much tougher and darker film.

Man With a Cloak (1951)
Barbara Stanwyck again and Joseph Cotton, as a mystery man out to save Leslie Caron in 19th Century New York.  This time Stanwyck sings.

Detective Story (1951)
Kirk Douglas as the grandfather of all burned out cops.  The film's stage roots show, but a great cast brings it to life.  William Bendix (who is to this list what Herbert Marshall was to my first one) is again outstanding in a serious supporting role.  (This movie was nominated by Herschel Cozine after my original list was posted.) 

Kansas City Confidential (1952)
John Payne out to clear his name.  A interesting mix of fading stars, like Payne and Preston Foster, and up and comers, like Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam, a characteristic of most B pictures.



The Narrow Margin (1952)
Low-budget cult film of cop Charles McGraw trying to keep star witness Marie Windsor alive during a train trip from Chicago to LA.  McGraw is tougher than Intermediate German.
 
The Blue Gardenia (1953)
Why should dahlias have all the fun?  When Anne Baxter is accused of murdering Raymond Burr, columnist Richard Conte comes to her aid.



The Big Heat (1953)
Glenn Ford as a cop who loses everything in his pursuit of a crime ring.  Lee Marvin is a particularly slimy mobster. 


1960s

A Shot in the Dark (1964)
Comic whodunit was the second Inspector Clouseau film and the only one without any Pink Panther business.  For that reason, and the participation of Elke Sommer, it's also the best.

Mirage (1965)
A Hitchcock thriller made without Hitchcock.  Gregory Peck has lost his memory (as he did in Hitchcock's Spellbound) and he's on the run (and he was in Hitchcock's Spellbound).  P.I. Walter Matthau tries to help.

Point Blank (1967)
A film that's more iconic than obscure.  Lee Marvin wants the mob to pay him his money and shoots his way through the organizational chart to get it.  Why don't they just pay the guy?  Angie Dickinson heads up the supporting cast.

 Cogan's Bluff (1968)
How obscure can it be with Clint Eastwood as its star?  Contemporary Arizona lawman comes to New York to butt heads with Lee J. Cobb and meet Susan Clark.  Betty Fields, a bright young face of the 1940s, makes her sad last film appearance here. 

P.J. (1968)
A 1960s take on film noir, starring George Peppard as a P.I. hired to bodyguard Gale Hunnicut by her millionaire husband Raymond Burr, a veteran of forties noir.



1970s

They Only Kill Their Masters (1972)
James Garner is a small-town policeman trying to solve a complex murder.  Katharine Ross is the romantic interest, but the supporting cast is largely made up of names from the forties brought on to give this a forties feel.  They include June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Edmond O'Brien, and Anne Rutherford.  

Charley Varrick (1973)
Thriller detailing the plight of Walter Matthau, a small-time bank robber who accidently knocks over a mob bank.  Joe Don Baker almost steals the film as the hit man sent after him.

Night Moves (1975)
California P.I. Gene Hackman is in over his head in the Florida Keys.  Directed by Arthur Penn. 

The Late Show (1977)
Aging P.I. Art Carney sets out to solve the murder of his old partner Howard Duff. (Duff was old-time radio's Sam Spade, making this an evocative bit of casting).  Lily Tomlin in support.

Murder by Degree (1979)
Peter Finch as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason as Dr. Watson face off against Jack the Ripper, one of whose victims is Susan Clark.  John Gielgud, who once played Holmes on the radio, does a cameo.  


Once again, I didn't make it to the eighties, but last time I didn't get past 1974, so I did break new old ground.  Maybe next time, when My Hit List Strikes Back, I can "finish off" the century.


12 November 2013

The Continuous Dream

by Terence Faherty

Creating vivid characters and believable settings is a complex process--or rather, it's at least two processes, since character and setting aren't the same thing.  But the these processes have something in common, and that something is the vivid dream. 

When I speak to writing students about creating vivid characters, I suggest that they start with a detailed visual picture that they then relate selectively, picking the two or three or half a dozen details that will make a character a unique individual for the reader.  The same thing goes for the setting in which their characters move and argue and strike each other with beer bottles.

Quiet Please.  Writer Visualizing.
All of which assumes that the author can see the character and setting and see them as clearly as a recent memory or a particularly vivid dream.  In the case of character, you can work from life, using your third-grade teacher or a man you saw on the bus this morning, or you can pick someone out of an ad or an old movie.  For settings, you can travel your neighborhood or the globe or pore over the writings of someone who has traveled.  Or, yes, you can make up either a character or a setting out of whole cloth.  However you start, at some point you have to see that character and that setting.  Really see them.  Your setting has to be a real place in your mind's eye and your characters real people.  (You'll also hear them and smell them and touch them, if you're writing from all your senses, but, for me, seeing comes first.)

When I write, I'm watching a movie in my head, seeing characters in the setting.  As they move about, I see what elements to mention, like the heroine's hair being pushed away from her face and falling right back again or the moving shadows from the tree above the patio table at which the murderer sits. 
 

Grant, Gibson, and Saint
And visualization isn't only important for descriptions.  It also helps me avoid "continuity errors," which is a movie term for little mistakes that pop up in a scene when multiple takes are edited together.  Like the Gibson cocktail that appears and disappears in front of Cary Grant while he's talking with Eva Marie Saint in the club car in North By Northwest.   These things can happen in our writing, too, when we're not visualizing the actions we're describing.  A student once gave me a chapter in which a man yanks a derby down to his eyebrows in a show of determination.  So far so good, but a line or two later, the same character slaps his forehead in surprise.  Try slapping your forehead after you've yanked your derby down.  The author had gotten caught up in the dialogue of the scene (which was, incidentally, very good) and stopped visualizing.

Am I claiming that my mental movie is identical in every respect to the one playing inside the reader's head when he or she reads my finished story?  No.  That would take more detail than even a Gustave Flaubert could cram into a scene.  Or else a kind of magic.  And yet there is a sort of alchemy at work when the reader completes the circuit and reconstitutes the freeze dried images we put on the page.  (The preceding sentence has been submitted for a mixed-metaphor award.)  I believe that if my settings are real places for me and my characters real people, my readers will pick up on it.  They'll meet me halfway, plugging in the missing details from their own experience or imagination. 

And my dream will live on independent of me.  Which is something worth seeing.  




           

29 October 2013

Magna Cum Murder

by Terence Faherty

I spent last weekend among old friends.  I attended Magna Cum Murder, a mystery conference that's been held in Indiana for the past nineteen years.  For at least its first decade, Magna was based at the Roberts Hotel in Muncie.  The Roberts was a great old pile from the 1920s, with a potted-palm lobby out of an Edward Hopper painting.  One of the conference legends has Mary Higgins Clark and friends singing around a lobby piano being played by Les Roberts (the PI writer, not the guy who owned the hotel).  The Roberts also had the perfect bar for a small conference: big enough to hold a bunch of mystery writers and small enough to make them rub elbows.  I fondly remember sitting at that bar with Ralph McInerny, watching a World Series game.  Can't remember who was playing.


View of the Roberts Lobby, Showing the Mary Higgins Clark Piano

When the Roberts Hotel closed, Magna soldiered on using Muncie's convention center and a collection of satellite motels.  But as the Bouchercon occasionally proves, it's hard to do a convention without a central hotel.  This year, Magna moved to Indianapolis, to a private club older than the Roberts, the Columbia Club.  Though the club is private, it was open to Magna attendees, and the result was something very like Magnas of old.

The Columbia Club, New Home to Magna Cum Murder

The driving force behind Magna is Kathryn Kennison, a great friend to mystery writers and book lovers in general.  Kathryn set Magna's classy and welcoming tone back in 1994, and has maintained it ever since.  And every year she works the miracle of drawing a big-name guest of honor to a small Midwestern conference.  This year's honoree was Steve Hamilton.  Our banquet speaker was Hank Phillippi Ryan.  They still come to Indiana for Kathryn.


Guest of Honor Interview:  Hank Phillippi Ryan and Steve Hamilton


A big advantage of a small conference for the writer is the opportunity to speak with a good percentage of the attendees.  That's assuming you "work the room," making yourself available to fans and doing such daring things as sitting down at a table full of strangers.  It's not the easiest leap for some writers to make, including this writer.  Small conferences are good for the fans and for aspiring writers (as yet unpublished writers, someone called them this weekend) because of this same intimacy.


Magna's First Panel: John Desjarlais, Albert Bell, Molly Weston, William Kent Krueger, and Unidentified Moderator 


One of the reasons I sometimes fail to work the room at Magna is that I'm too busy catching up with writers I only see there. (I'm not naming names for fear of leaving someone out.) As important as book promoting is, it's also important for me to keep in touch with writers I admire, to be encouraged by success stories and to condole over the frustrations of the writing life. This year, I even got to watch another World Series game in another Magna bar.  (And yes, I do remember who was playing.)

Two Award-winning Writers, Sandra Balzo and Ted Hertel, Jr.,and Two Distinguished
 Critics, Gary Warren Niebuhr (holding his favorite book) and Ted Fitzgerald

Next time you're on Facebook, check out the Magna Cum Murder page.  You'll see some very professional photos of the attendees and of the Columbia Club (unlike the grainy group shots reproduced here, which were made with my very small camera.)  And if you're looking for a weekend away with new old friends next fall, consider Magna's twentieth anniversary celebration in October.  Next year's details should be available soon on Magna's web site, along with an online registration form.  I'll remind you later.   

15 October 2013

The Big Moving Sleep Target

by Terence Faherty

This time last year I was serving as the program chair for a great mystery conference we have here in Indiana, Magna Cum Murder.  (This year's conference is being held in Indianapolis on October 25, 26, and 27, and there's still time to register.)  At Magna, they often pick a classic mystery as the conference book.  All attendees are encouraged to read it, at least one panel is devoted to it, and the movie version is shown, if one exists.  I chose The Moving Target, the first Lew Archer novel by Ross Macdonald.  (Yes, it does say "John Macdonald" on the first edition cover.  Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar, didn't settle on Ross for his pen name until the fifth or six book.)  I selected that early book, rather than one of Macdonald's later classics, because there is a movie version, 1966's Harper, starring Paul Newman.
 
After making my decision, I reread The Moving Target for the first time in perhaps thirty years.  The first few chapters made me glad I'd picked it, the last few less so.  But what struck me most about the novel was its close relationship with another first number in a famous series, The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler's first Philip Marlowe novel.  It's so close, in fact, that I'm convinced Macdonald reread The Big Sleep before laying out The Moving Target, if he didn't have a copy open on his lap as he wrote.

I'm not going to summarize the two plots here.  I'll save that arduous task for when I expand this post into my doctoral dissertation (later to be an Edgar-nominated critical work and, later still, a direct-to-DVD cartoon).  I'll confine myself to citing ten examples to support my contention that, in many ways, The Moving Target (TMT) is a play on and an inversion of The Big Sleep (TBS).

- 1 -

In both books, the PI is called in to straighten out a problem for a wealthy family whose senior representative is an invalid:  General Sternwood in TBS and Elaine Sampson in TMT. Both these characters are heartsick over the loss of a pseudo son, the general's runaway drinking buddy and Elaine's killed-in-action stepson.

- 2 -

The characters of the fathers of these two families and their respective daughters is an example of Macdonald's inversion of Chandler's plot.  In TBS, General Sternwood is wise and his daughter is wild.  In TMT, Ralph Sampson (Elaine's missing husband) is wild and his daughter is wise beyond her years.

- 3 -

Both plots feature rackets complicated by and eventually undone by other crimes.  In TBS, a smut book racket is undone by a blackmail play.  In TMT, a smuggling racket is undone by a kidnapping.

- 4 -

In both books, the initial crime seems vague and phony:  the too polite blackmail of the Sternwoods and the kidnapping of Ralph Sampson that might not be one. 

- 5 -

In both cases, a shadowy underworld figure appears to be pulling the strings.  Each has a last name that's a vague classical allusion, Eddie Mars in TBS and Dwight Troy in TMT.  Both own or have owned a gambling joint, and both are gray-haired.

- 6 - 

Both books feature dens of iniquity:  the house where the wild Sternwood daughter does drugs in TBS becomes the red, zodiac-themed bedroom of the wild father in TMT.

- 7 -

Both the Sternwoods and the Sampsons employ a lovesick young man whose infatuation with a drug user will get him killed (and, again, the names are similar):  Owen Taylor, a chauffeur, in TBS and Alan Taggert, a pilot, in TMT.   Here, Macdonald's inversion of the Chandler model is again apparent.  Taylor chases a Sternwood daughter while Taggert is chased by Sampson's.

- 8 -

The supporting casts have other parallel characters, including two hard luck little men with criminal pasts whose devotion to the wrong women will end them:  Harry Jones in TBS and Eddie Lassiter in TMT.

- 9 -

And in both novels, the PI has a friend with either a current or past connection to the local district attorney's office, and, yet again, the names are similar:  Bernie Ohls (TBS) and Albert "Bertie" Graves (TMT). 

- 10 -

The final link is another name clue, in some respects the most obvious one Macdonald planted.  The wild daughter from TBS is named Carmen.  The not-so-wild daughter from TMT is named Miranda.  Get it? 



Carmen Miranda!

A coincidence?  I think not.  In fact, I rest my case.