23 December 2012

Literary Mystery

Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway, 1927
Here's sort of a Christmas gift, a famous author's award-winning story, four times turned into film and the subject of stage plays. Despite reams of reviews and scholarly study guides, I find it deeply dissatisfying. But, thanks to other clues left by a 16-year-old boy, that may be alleviated.

SleuthSayers from time to time discusses literary fiction versus genre. The topic brings me back to an Ernest Hemingway story, The Killers, a Nick Adams ugly-truth coming-of-age. It's sort of Waiting for Godot with Guns, a nothing-much-happens character study.

It contains details critics love and genre readers don't care about: George, not Henry, runs Henry's diner. Mrs. Hirsch, not Mrs. Bell, runs Mrs. Bell's boarding house. It's a parable, see.

The dialogue is casually racist, which raises a question: Is it a product of its times or is Hemingway revealing something else about Sam, the only character with on-point instincts?

The problem for crime writers and mystery readers is that the plot doesn't go anywhere. Nick, George, and Sam don't do anything clever to thwart the hit men. Indeed, they have less sense of self-preservation than a mussel drying on the beach. The Swede has even less.

We don't know why the Swede's life's threatened, why he doesn't care, why the killers do, why they don't report it to the police, or why the landlady employs a surrogate, because we're at a disadvantage. Readers at the time might have recognized a tantalizing clue in the Swede's name: Andreson. Months earlier, the Chicago mob killed a popular boxer of the time, Andre Anderson who'd once knocked Jack Dempsey off his feet. Clever word play.

For a man of action, Hemingway put a lot of menace but remarkably little action into the plot. He once said he'd omitted most of the tale: "That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote."

Joe Gans
the real Joe Gans
The Hidden Back-story

In other words, classic literary fiction. But Hemingway kept a secret from the world at large. When he was 16, he wrote short fiction for his Illinois Oak Park High School literary magazine, The Tabula. 'A Matter of Colour' featured one of the earliest of his boxing themes: in this corner, the challenger and great white hope, Montana Dan Morgan, versus the first black World Lightweight Champion, Joe Gans (an actual historical boxer). When Morgan injures his right fist– he has no left to speak of– his manager, Jim O’Rourke, takes matters into his own hands and hires 'The Swede' to shut down Joe Gans.

The boxing ring backs against a drape. O’Rourke expects Morgan to force Gans against the curtain where the Swede, standing by with a baseball bat, is paid to conk Joe Gans, knocking him out. Except the Swede is colorblind (I know, I know, bear with me) and bops Morgan instead. It's a small step to imagine retaliation for the bungling, manager O’Rourke or the local Chicago mob to take out a contract on the Swede.

At last we have a glimmer why killers were after the Swede. With that back-story, read on. It's a bit early but, pardon the pun, happy boxing day.

The Killers

by Ernest Hemingway
The door of Henry's lunchroom opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.
"What's yours?" George asked them.
"I don't know," one of the men said. "What do you want to eat, Al?"
"I don't know," said Al. "I don't know what I want to eat."
Outside it was getting dark. The street-light came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in.
"I'll have a roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes," the first man said.
"It isn't ready yet."
"What the hell do you put it on the card for?"
"That's the dinner," George explained. "You can get that at six o'clock."
George looked at the clock on the wall behind the counter.
"It's five o'clock."
"The clock says twenty minutes past five," the second man said.
"It's twenty minutes fast."
"Oh, to hell with the clock," the first man said. "What have you got to eat?"
"I can give you any kind of sandwiches," George said. "You can have ham and eggs, bacon and eggs, liver and bacon, or a steak."
"Give me chicken croquettes with green peas and cream sauce and mashed potatoes."
"That's the dinner."
"Everything we want's the dinner, eh? That's the way you work it."
"I can give you ham and eggs, bacon and eggs, liver----"
"I'll take ham and eggs," the man called Al said. He wore a derby hat and a black overcoat buttoned across the chest. His face was small and white and he had tight lips. He wore a silk muffler and gloves.
"Give me bacon and eggs," said the other man. He was about the same size as Al. Their faces were different, but they were dressed like twins. Both wore overcoats too tight for them. They sat leaning forward, their elbows on the counter.
"Got anything to drink?" Al asked.
"Silver beer, bevo, ginger-ale," George said.
"I mean you got anything to drink?"
"Just those I said."
"This is a hot town," said the other. "What do they call it?"
"Ever hear of it?" Al asked his friend.
"No," said the friend.
"What do you do here nights?" Al asked.
"They eat the dinner," his friend said. "They all come here and eat the big dinner."
"That's right," George said.
"So you think that's right?" Al asked George.
"You're a pretty bright boy, aren't you?"
"Sure," said George.
"Well, you're not," said the other little man. "Is he, Al?"
"He's dumb," said Al. He turned to Nick. "What's your name?"
"Another bright boy," Al said. "Ain't he a bright boy, Max?"
"The town's full of bright boys," Max said.
George put the two platters, one of ham and eggs, the other of bacon and eggs, on the counter. He set down two side-dishes of fried potatoes and closed the wicket into the kitchen.
"Which is yours?" he asked Al.
"Don't you remember?"
"Ham and eggs."
"Just a bright boy," Max said. He leaned forward and took the ham and eggs. Both men ate with their gloves on. George watched them eat.
"What are you looking at?" Max looked at George.
"The hell you were. You were looking at me."
"Maybe the boy meant it for a joke, Max," Al said.
George laughed.
"You don't have to laugh," Max said to him. "You don't have to laugh at all, see?"
"All right," said George.
"So he thinks it's all right." Max turned to Al. "He thinks it's all right. That's a good one."
"Oh, he's a thinker," Al said. They went on eating.
"What's the bright boy's name down the counter?" Al asked Max.
"Hey, bright boy," Max said to Nick. "You go around on the other side of the counter with your boy friend."
"What's the idea?" Nick asked.
"There isn't any idea."
"You better go around, bright boy," Al said. Nick went around behind the counter.
"What's the idea?" George asked.
"None of your damn business," Al said. "Who's out in the kitchen?"
"The nigger."
"What do you mean the nigger?"
"The nigger that cooks."
"Tell him to come in."
"What's the idea?"
"Tell him to come in."
"Where do you think you are?"
"We know damn well where we are," the man called Max said. "Do we look silly?"
"You talk silly," Al said to him. "What the hell do you argue with this kid for? Listen," he said to George, "tell the nigger to come out here."
"What are you going to do to him?"
"Nothing. Use your head, bright boy. What would we do to a nigger?"
George opened the slit that opened back into the kitchen. "Sam," he called. "Come in here a minute."
The door to the kitchen opened and the nigger came in. "What was it?" he asked. The two men at the counter took a look at him.
"All right, nigger. You stand right there," Al said.
Sam, the nigger, standing in his apron, looked at the two men sitting at the counter. "Yes, sir," he said. Al got down from his stool.
"I'm going back to the kitchen with the nigger and bright boy," he said. "Go on back to the kitchen, nigger. You go with him, bright boy." The little man walked after Nick and Sam, the cook, back into the kitchen. The door shut after them. The man called Max sat at the counter opposite George. He didn't look at George but looked in the mirror that ran along back of the counter. Henry's had been made over from a saloon into a lunch counter.
"Well, bright boy," Max said, looking into the mirror, "why don't you say something?"
"What's it all about?"
"Hey, Al," Max called, "bright boy wants to know what it's all about."
"Why don't you tell him?" Al's voice came from the kitchen.
"What do you think it's all about?"
"I don't know."
"What do you think?"
Max looked into the mirror all the time he was talking.
"I wouldn't say."
"Hey, Al, bright boy says he wouldn't say what he thinks it's all about."
"I can hear you, all right," Al said from the kitchen. He had propped open the slit that dishes passed through into the kitchen with a catsup bottle. "Listen, bright boy," he said from the kitchen to George. "Stand a little further along the bar. You move a little to the left, Max." He was like a photographer arranging for a group picture.
"Talk to me, bright boy," Max said. "What do you think's going to happen?"
George did not say anything.
"I'll tell you," Max said. "We're going to kill a Swede. Do you know a big Swede named Ole Andreson?"
"He comes here to eat every night, don't he?"
"Sometimes he comes here."
"He comes here at six o'clock, don't he?"
"If he comes."
"We know all that, bright boy," Max said. "Talk about something else. Ever go to the movies?"
"Once in a while."
"You ought to go to the movies more. The movies are fine for a bright boy like you."
"What are you going to kill Ole Andreson for? What did he ever do to you?"
"He never had a chance to do anything to us. He never even seen us."
"And he's only going to see us once," Al said from the kitchen.
"What are you going to kill him for, then?" George asked.
"We're killing him for a friend. Just to oblige a friend, bright boy."
"Shut up," said Al from the kitchen. "You talk too goddam much."
"Well, I got to keep bright boy amused. Don't I, bright boy?"
"You talk too damn much," Al said. "The nigger and my bright boy are amused by themselves. I got them tied up like a couple of girl friends in the convent."
"I suppose you were in a convent."
"You never know."
"You were in a kosher convent. That's where you were."
George looked up at the clock.
"If anybody comes in you tell them the cook is off, and if they keep after it, you tell them you'll go back and cook yourself. Do you get that, bright boy?"
"All right," George said. "What you going to do with us afterward?"
"That'll depend," Max said. "That's one of those things you never know at the time."
George looked up at the clock. It was a quarter past six. The door from the street opened. A street-car motorman came in.
"Hello, George," he said. "Can I get supper?"
"Sam's gone out," George said. "He'll be back in about half an hour."
"I'd better go up the street," the motorman said. George looked at the clock. It was twenty minutes past six.
"That was nice, bright boy," Max said. "You're a regular little gentleman."
"He knew I'd blow his head off," Al said from the kitchen.
"No," said Max. "It ain't that. Bright boy is nice. He's a nice boy. I like him."
At six-fifty-five George said: "He's not coming."
Two other people had been in the lunch-room. Once George had gone out to the kitchen and made a ham-and-egg sandwich "to go" that a man wanted to take with him. Inside the kitchen he saw Al, his derby hat tipped back, sitting on a stool beside the wicket with the muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun resting on the ledge. Nick and the cook were back to back in the corner, a towel tied in each of their mouths. George had cooked the sandwich, wrapped it up in oiled paper, put it in a bag, brought it in, and the man had paid for it and gone out.
"Bright boy can do everything," Max said. "He can cook and everything. You'd make some girl a nice wife, bright boy."
"Yes?" George said. "Your friend, Ole Andreson, isn't going to come."
"We'll give him ten minutes," Max said.
Max watched the mirror and the clock. The hands of the clock marked seven o'clock, and then five minutes past seven.
"Come on, Al," said Max. "We better go. He's not coming."
"Better give him five minutes," Al said from the kitchen.
In the five minutes a man came in, and George explained that the cook was sick.
"Why the hell don't you get another cook?" the man asked. "Aren't you running a lunch-counter?" He went out.
"Come on, Al," Max said.
"What about the two bright boys and the nigger?"
"They're all right."
"You think so?"
"Sure. We're through with it."
"I don't like it," said Al. "It's sloppy. You talk too much."
"Oh, what the hell," said Max. "We got to keep amused, haven't we?"
"You talk too much, all the same," Al said. He came out from the kitchen. The cut-off barrels of the shotgun made a slight bulge under the waist of his too tight-fitting overcoat. He straightened his coat with his gloved hands.
"So long, bright boy," he said to George. "You got a lot of luck."
"That's the truth," Max said. "You ought to play the races, bright boy."
The two of them went out the door. George watched them, through the window, pass under the arc-light and across the street. In their tight overcoats and derby hats they looked like a vaudeville team. George went back through the swinging door into the kitchen and untied Nick and the cook.
"I don't want any more of that," said Sam, the cook. "I don't want any more of that."
Nick stood up. He had never had a towel in his mouth before.
"Say," he said. "What the hell?" He was trying to swagger it off.
"They were going to kill Ole Andreson," George said. "They were going to shoot him when he came in to eat."
"Ole Andreson?"
The cook felt the corners of his mouth with his thumbs.
"They all gone?" he asked.
"Yeah," said George. "They're gone now."
"I don't like it," said the cook. "I don't like any of it at all."
"Listen," George said to Nick. "You better go see Ole Andreson."
"All right."
"You better not have anything to do with it at all," Sam, the cook, said. "You better stay way out of it."
"Don't go if you don't want to," George said.
"Mixing up in this ain't going to get you anywhere," the cook said. "You stay out of it."
"I'll go see him," Nick said to George. "Where does he live?"
The cook turned away.
"Little boys always know what they want to do," he said.
"He lives up at Hirsch's rooming-house," George said to Nick.
"I'll go up there."
Outside the arc-light shone through the bare branches of a tree. Nick walked up the street beside the car-tracks and turned at the next arc-light down a side-street. Three houses up the street was Hirsch's rooming-house. Nick walked up the two steps and pushed the bell. A woman came to the door.
"Is Ole Andreson here?"
"Do you want to see him?"
"Yes, if he's in."
Nick followed the woman up a flight of stairs and back to the end of a corridor. She knocked on the door.
"Who is it?"
"It's somebody to see you, Mr. Andreson," the woman said.
"It's Nick Adams."
"Come in."
Nick opened the door and went into the room. Ole Andreson was lying on the bed with all his clothes on. He had been a heavyweight prize-fighter and he was too long for the bed. He lay with his head on two pillows. He did not look at Nick.
"What was it?" he asked.
"I was up at Henry's," Nick said, "and two fellows came in and tied up me and the cook, and they said they were going to kill you."
It sounded silly when he said it. Ole Andreson said nothing.
"They put us out in the kitchen," Nick went on. "They were going to shoot you when you came in to supper."
Ole Andreson looked at the wall and did not say anything.
"George thought I better come and tell you about it."
"There isn't anything I can do about it," Ole Andreson said.
"I'll tell you what they were like."
"I don't want to know what they were like," Ole Andreson said. He looked at the wall. "Thanks for coming to tell me about it."
"That's all right."
Nick looked at the big man lying on the bed.
"Don't you want me to go and see the police?"
"No," Ole Andreson said. "That wouldn't do any good."
"Isn't there something I could do?"
"No. There ain't anything to do."
"Maybe it was just a bluff."
"No. It ain't just a bluff."
Ole Andreson rolled over toward the wall.
"The only thing is," he said, talking toward the wall, "I just can't make up my mind to go out. I been in here all day."
"Couldn't you get out of town?"
"No," Ole Andreson said. "I'm through with all that running around."
He looked at the wall.
"There ain't anything to do now."
"Couldn't you fix it up some way?"
"No. I got in wrong." He talked in the same flat voice. "There ain't anything to do. After a while I'll make up my mind to go out."
"I better go back and see George," Nick said.
"So long," said Ole Andreson. He did not look toward Nick. "Thanks for coming around."
Nick went out. As he shut the door he saw Ole Andreson with all his clothes on, lying on the bed looking at the wall.
"He's been in his room all day," the landlady said downstairs. "I guess he don't feel well. I said to him: 'Mr. Andreson, you ought to go out and take a walk on a nice fall day like this,' but he didn't feel like it."
"He doesn't want to go out."
"I'm sorry he don't feel well," the woman said. "He's an awfully nice man. He was in the ring, you know."
"I know it."
"You'd never know it except from the way his face is," the woman said. They stood talking just inside the street door. "He's just as gentle."
"Well, good-night, Mrs. Hirsch," Nick said.
"I'm not Mrs. Hirsch," the woman said. "She owns the place. I just look after it for her. I'm Mrs. Bell."
"Well, good-night, Mrs. Bell," Nick said.
"Good-night," the woman said.
Nick walked up the dark street to the corner under the arc-light, and then along the car-tracks to Henry's eating-house. George was inside, back of the counter.
"Did you see Ole?"
"Yes," said Nick. "He's in his room and he won't go out."
The cook opened the door from the kitchen when he heard Nick's voice.
"I don't even listen to it," he said and shut the door.
"Did you tell him about it?" George asked.
"Sure. I told him but he knows what it's all about."
"What's he going to do?"
"They'll kill him."
"I guess they will."
"He must have got mixed up in something in Chicago."
"I guess so," said Nick.
"It's a hell of a thing."
"It's an awful thing," Nick said.
They did not say anything. George reached down for a towel and wiped the counter.
"I wonder what he did?" Nick said.
"Double-crossed somebody. That's what they kill them for."
"I'm going to get out of this town," Nick said.
"Yes," said George. "That's a good thing to do."
"I can't stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it. It's too damned awful."
"Well," said George, "you better not think about it."

22 December 2012

Jawdroppers and Tearjerkers

First, I'd like to announce another drawing for a SleuthSayers giveaway.  The prize this time is a copy of my second book, a hardcover collection of thirty mystery/suspense stories called MIDNIGHT.  To enter, leave a comment on today's post anytime this week and check back next Saturday (above Elizabeth Zelvin's post) to see if you're the winner.  And I hope everyone has a great holiday!

Those of you who know me know I'm a huge fan of suspense fiction---who wouldn't be?--but I'm also a certified, card-carrying movie maniac.  I absolutely love 'em.  Our three children, probably thanks to me, are almost as movie-crazy as I am.  One of them even has a media room at his house, complete with 70-inch TV and surround-sound and reclining seats that vibrate during earthquakes and shootouts and cattle stampedes.  (Our kids' toys were always as much fun for me as for them, and that hasn't changed.  What's even better now is that I'm not the one who has to pay for them.)

My wife and I were over at our younger son's home a few weeks ago for "movie night,"and I was reminded how much I've enjoyed certain scenes, over the years--mainly scenes that were either surprising (think The Sixth Sense), emotional (think Old Yeller), or visually stunning (think Lawrence of Arabia, or Avatar).  Some scenes--maybe the best ones--manage to be all three, or at least two out of three.  And I fully understand, by the way, that opinions differ a lot in this area.  I remember feeling incredibly sad during the movie Love Story, but only because I had paid good money to sit through it.

Having said that, I've put together a quick list of some of my favorite scenes, in those three categories: (1) surprising, (2) emotional, and (3) pulse-pounding.  If the first group doesn't affect you, you're smarter than I am and have figured everything out already; if the second doesn't, your heart is considerably harder than mine; and if the third doesn't . . . well, maybe you're asleep, or gone to the restroom.

Here they are.  I've forced myself to stop at a dozen each:

Jawdroppers (surprise! version)

Final scene, The Usual Suspects
Fruit-cellar scene, Psycho
"She's my sister AND my daughter" scene, Chinatown
Graveyard (final) scene, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
Final scene, Escape From New York
"Write everything exactly as I say it" scene, The Book of Eli
Butcher knife scene, The Stepford Wives (1972)
Final scene, Primal Fear
The death of Jack Vincennes, L.A. Confidential
Statue of Liberty (final) scene, Planet of the Apes (1968)
Final scene, Presumed Innocent
"Here's what really happened" scene, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance


The death of John Coffey, The Green Mile
Boo Radley's appearance, To Kill a Mockingbird
Forrest talking to Jenny at her gravesite, Forrest Gump
The penny on the door, Ghost
"Did somebody save me?" (final) scene, Signs
Mother elephant singing to her baby, Dumbo
"He was smilin'" (final) scene, Cool Hand Luke
Primroses (final) scene, The Last Sunset
"Goodbye, little Joe" scene, Shane
The death of Carl's wife, Up
"O Captain, my Captain" (final) scene, Dead Poet's Society
"Goodnight, you princes of Maine" (final) scene, The Cider House Rules

Jawdroppers (edge-of-your-seat version)

Chariot race, Ben-Hur
Opening scene, Raiders of the Lost Ark
Final scene, Aliens
Car/train chase, The French Connection
Knocking out the stadium lights, The Natural
Countdown inside Fort Knox, Goldfinger
T-Rex attack, Jurassic Park
Crash of the alien spaceship, Prometheus
Final scene, Blood Simple
Buffalo hunt, Dances With Wolves
San Francisco car chase, Bullitt
Clarice and the killer in the basement, The Silence of the Lambs

I suspect a lot more of these memorable scenes are coming up in the near future--notably in films like Life of Pi, which--if it's anything like the book--will have plenty of surprises, emotion, and goosebumps.  And for action of the guilty-pleasure/Jerry Bruckheimer sort, I'm looking forward to the 2013 remake of The Lone Ranger.

Question: Which film scenes are the ones you remember most?  And don't worry--if none come readily to mind, that's probably a point in your favor.  It means you don't do as much movie-watching and/or daydreaming as I do.  (I think about that stuff all the time.)

I'll close with a line from another of my favorite scenes, one that goes along with the Christmas season: "Look, Daddy.  Teacher says, 'Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.'"

That one jerks a tear every time.

21 December 2012

Marketing at Christmas

by R.T. Lawton

Every author these days knows he has to market himself or develop a brand or have a platform or.....do something to help distinguish himself from the herd and his work from the rest of the slush pile. Presenters at conferences and experts in various publications tell writers they need to network, start a blog, find a niche, do their best writing, never quit, etc., etc. After a while, it all starts to sound like work on our end, and whereas I'm not averse to working up a good sweat from time to time, I also believe in stacking the cards (pun intended, as you'll soon see) in my favor. So, here's one of the things I do.

For 2005, "Dark Eyes" Mike photoshopped me in & then snuck himself in

Every year at Christmas time for several years now, I send Linda Landrigan, the editor of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, a Christmas card. Now this is no ordinary off-the-rack card. No, this particular card is custom made by my Huey pilot buddy Mike who happened to mention early on in our friendship that he has a certain amount of artistic talent. Since I have flown with this guy into places you aren't supposed to take a helicopter, landed people for raids and parked on mesa tops about the size of a large table to make a quick pit stop (it's a long way down if you're looking that direction and hanging onto the door frame), when he tells me he can do something, I tend to believe him.

In any case, Mike agreed to make Christmas cards for me, and we ended up having a lot of fun with it. Each year's card is based on one of the short stories Linda bought from me and then published in her magazine that year.
2009 card for "Boudin Noir"

Naturally, the problem pops up that few of the stories are Christmas oriented, but we do the best we can. And, to perpetuate that particular year's story concept, each card is signed by characters in that story. For instance, if that year's selection was from a story in my 1660's Paris Underworld series, then one of us might sign as le orphan (Mike's wife Angie), another as King Jules (me), one as Remy the Chevalier (Mike) and another as Josette (my wife Kiti). It's all done in fun, but I'm sure it also keeps my stories in the minds of the editor and staff for a while. In fact, at one of the Bouchercons a few years back, Linda informed me that she was collecting these cards as part of the magazine's history. Whoa, that puts on a lot of pressure to really perform in the future. I have been told a couple of times that I was history, but this was a completely different type of footnote.

The 2004 card to the left is based on "In Bond," a "locked room" mystery in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series in which pallets of In Bond wine is stolen from a locked and guarded warehouse.

So, that's one of the ways I try to stack the cards in my favor for this game of writing. Anybody out there got any moves of your own you'd care to share? Or, any suggestions you think would work for you, me or anyone else?

And, by the way, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Hanukkah, Joyeux Noel, Mutlu Noeller and several other season's greetings for which my keyboard doesn't have letters or symbols.

20 December 2012

We're No Angels

"I'll say one thing for prison:  you meet a better class of people." 
               Joseph (Humphrey Bogart) in "We're No Angels", 1955.

Aldo Ray, Bogart, Peter Ustinov
Okay, so that's only true (with some exceptions) in movies.  But I'd cheerfully spend all day with these guys. I first met them when I was ten years old, back in the 60's, watching the 1955 Christmas Classic, "We're No Angels," a black and white TV set, all by myself.  I laughed until I cried, and I remembered lines from it for years afterwards.  It warped me for life.

"I read someplace that when a lady faints, you should loosen her clothing."  - Albert

Three convicts escape from the prison on Devil's Island on Christmas Eve.  There's Humphrey Bogart as Joseph, a maniac and master forger, Peter Ustinov as Jules, an expert safe-cracker, in prison only because of a "slight difference of opinion with my wife", and Aldo Ray as Albert, "a swine" of a heart breaker who only fell afoul of the law after asking his uncle for money (the illegal part was when said uncle said "no" and Albert beat him to death with a poker - 29 times).  Oh, and their fellow-traveler, Adolphe - or is it Adolf?

                       "We came here to rob them and that's what we're gonna do - beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes." - Joseph

Anyway, these 3 convicts need money, clothing, passports - and they find it all at Ducotel's General Store, the famous Ducotel's, "the one who gives credit".  Along with Felix (Leo G. Carroll), the most inept, innocent, and financially challenged manager in history, his beautiful wife, Amelie (played by Joan Bennett), and their daughter Isobel (Gloria Talbott, in full super virgin mode). 

"You really like us, don't you?"  - Amelie (before Sally Field)

You can see where this is going:  they get hired, they get interested, they get all warm fuzzy, they change their ways, everyone is happy.  Right?  Well, not quite.  Because the big fat plum in this pudding is Basil Rathbone as Andre Trochard, who owns Ducotel's, and has come to Devil's Island - with his sycophantic nephew Paul - to do the books on Christmas Day.  I love a good villain, and Basil Rathbone is as snooty, snotty, sneering, vindictive, scheming, insulting, arrogant, belittling, and generally nasty as they come.  ("Your opinion of me has no cash value."  - Andre Trochard.)  He makes Ebenezer Scrooge look like a warm pussy cat.

Andre Trochard - "Twenty years in solitary - how's that for a Christmas present?"
Jules - "That's a lovely Christmas present.  But how are you going to wrap it up?"

There's no Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, or Future in this one; no "God bless us, every one"; no Tiny Tim; but there's theft and forgery, fraud and deceit, murder and mayhem, all done with sharp, hilarious dialog.  Go.  Rent it now.  Pour a Chateau Yquem (you'll understand later) or its equivalent, pull out a turkey leg, and enjoy!  Merry Christmas!  Compliments of the Season!

NOTE:  This was Joan Bennett's last role for Paramount for a very long time:  she was in the middle of a huge scandal when her husband, the Paramount film producer Walter Wanger, shot and almost killed her agent, Jennings Lang, in front of her in the MCA parking lot.  "I shot him because I thought he was breaking up my home," Wanger said.  Ms. Bennett said Wanger was wrong, that Wanger was in financial trouble, that Wanger was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but there would be no divorce. (!)  Wanger got 4 months at the County Honor Farm and went back to producing movies.  (Now that's Hollywood, folks.)  Bennett got blacklisted.  Until, O happy day! Dark Shadows hired her as matriarch Elizabeth Stoddard and she got to play with vampires instead of agents and producers.  As always, life is stranger than fiction.  If only she had had an Adolphe...  or is it Adolf?

SECOND NOTE:  This movie has a ton of great lines, but I have to admit my 2nd favorite Christmas movie has my favorite line of all time - the movie is the 1942 version of "The Man Who Came to Dinner", and it's Beverly Carlton (a thinly veiled Noel Coward) commenting on his former costar Larraine Sheldon (a thinly veiled Gertrude Lawrence):
"They do say she set fire to her mother, but I don't believe it."  
I laugh my head off every time... 

19 December 2012

Picking More Black Orchids

Two weeks ago I published in this space the speech I gave when I won the Black Orchid Novella Award. I wanted to talk a little bit more about the experience. After that I promise to shut up about it until the winning story is published in May, when I will start babbling about it again. (Hey, I don't win prizes that often; give me a break.)

Anyway, I was informed by Jane Cleland back in September that I was the winner. The reason for the early tip-off, of course, is to encourage the winner to attend, which is exactly what it did in my case.  But it meant I had to keep my trap shut for three months and that was not the easiest thing I ever did. Ironically, I applied for a promotion at the same time and in my c.v. I had to write "This year I will receive another award for my writing, but I can't tell you what it is. Ask me in December." I'm sure the peers reviewing my file wondered what the hell that was about.

We visit the Saturday farmer's market almost every week and there is a very nice woman there who makes excellent hats out of recycled sweaters. Back in September I joked that the reason I couldn't fit into one of her hats was that my head was swelled (swollen?) because I just found out I had won an award. She asked which one and of course I couldn't tell her. I did tell her last week and naturally she had never heard of the BONA. Another person wondering what the hell that was about.

Anyway, I did go to the Black Orchid events, wearing one of those recycled hats, oddly enough. It started with the Assembly, in which Rex Stout fans gather to hear experts discuss topics related to the Corpus. (Doyle's writings about Sherlock Holmes are known as the Canon; Stout's reports on Nero Wolfe are known as the Corpus, because it suggests the corpulent nature of our hero).

My favorite speaker was Bob Gatten, who spoke about Rex Stout's work as president of the War Writers Board. I hadn't known that Stout organized a program to discourage writers from using ethnic stereotypes in their writing. "We can't fight racism in Europe and appease it over here."

Another highlight was David Naczycz of Urban Oyster on the history of beer in New York City, a subject very dear to Wolfe's heart, or taste buds.

But the major event was the Banquet. Terri and I were seated next to Linda Landrigan, the editor of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and James Lincoln Warren, good friend of this blog, and last year's winner. James had an official duty this year, presenting the first of five annual toasts. His was to Rex Stout which he delivered in rhyme. Here is a sample:
In our hearts, we all gather together to meet 
At the brownstone address on West Thirty-Fifth Street,
To drink milk or drink beer, or tonight imbibe wine,
To toast a great soul and inimitable mind.
And I can testify that a considerable amount of wine was indeed imbibed.

Another feature of the annual banquet is that each table is expected to compose and perform a song (set to a familiar tune) about the Corpus. These are always enthusiastic if not necessarily masterpieces. Ira Matetsky the Werowance (i.e. president) of the Pack said of one number "of all the song parodies I have heard, that was the most recent."

Having been warned about this feature in advance I provided my tablemates with seven songs to choose from. They selected this number, to the tune of "Ain't Misbehavin'." (That's a photo of Fats Waller, of "Ain't Misbehavin'" fame, not Ira Matetsky, in case you wondered.)

I traveled upstate,
I don’t care to go,
I had a big date,
To show up a flower show
Some Buried Caesar,
I blame it all on you
Du-du, du-du-du, dudu-du
The car was loaded,
With orchids and me,
A tire exploded,
My Heron hit a tree.
Some Buried Caesar,
I didn’t hear you moo, Du…

Like Jack Horner

we were cornered
in the pasture,
I climbed faster,
That rescue’s what I waited for
Be-lieve me

While Archie first eyes,
the girl he’ll adore,
I won the first prize,
That’s what I went there for
Some Buried Caesar,
I solved a murder too, Du…
Some Buried Caesar,
That’s what detectives do

Matestsky gushingly described our contribution as "surprisingly competent."

One more thing. To fund unexpected expenses, the Wolfe Pack raffled off a seat for next year's banquet. I do not expect to be able to attend in 2013 but in the interest of contributing I bought one ticket.

Guess who won?

Must have been my lucky night.

18 December 2012

Christmas Stories: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

      Most years around this time I settle down to a re-read of Ellery Queen’s The Finishing Stroke, a 1957 mystery that I consider one of Queen’s best and that takes place during the course of Advent in 1929.  Building a Christmas mystery for Ellery to solve was a temptation that even two Jewish cousins from Brooklyn, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, could not resist.  The temptation has also lured virtually every other classic mystery writer.   Agatha Christie gave us not only Hercule Poirot’s Christmas but also a Miss Marple short story Christmas Tragedy.  Rex Stout contributed the 1957 Nero Wolfe novella Christmas Party and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle jumped into the fray with Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.  (The Holmes story is now available to Audible subscribers this month as a free holiday download.)

    Christmas stories are not the sole province of Golden Age mystery authors.  Our own Elizabeth Zelvin has contributed such a volume, to the holiday shelf Death Will Trim Your Tree.  The temptation to offer up Yuletide tales is also apparent from the works of other modern popular authors.  John Grisham has Skipping Christmas, and David Baldacci has The Christmas Train.

    Christmas stories have also provided the backdrop for many memorable movie classics.  Last year at this time of year I wrote of the many adaptations of my personal favorite, Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and our family’s Christmases usually are not complete without at least one screening of Irving Berlin’s 1954 musical White Christmas – this year my wife and I even attended the stage version at the Kennedy Center here in Washington – and we also always manage to find an evening to devote to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

    My family has always celebrated the Yule on Christmas Eve – when my brother Graham and I were kids that was the evening Santa visited our home, just after dinner.  The same was true when my own two sons, now well ensconced into their twenties, were kids.  And now, with my immediate family having dwindled down to four (all adults), six including my brother and his wife, we gather at Graham and Nikki's restored Victorian home near the St. Louis botanical gardens each year for the holiday.  We do all of the expected things – listen to carols, open presents, dine in front of the tree.  But we have a darker side to our Christmases as well.  When the presents have all been opened, and the room is a hopeless clutter of torn metallic papers and ribbons, we pour ourselves a couple stiff ones and turn on the TV in search of bad Christmas movies.

    With on-line movies, YouTube and obscure DVDs readily available, finding almost any given movie is not that difficult.  But finding the right one is not always an easy task.  Not just any bad movie will do.  Just as you can get too much of a good thing, it is even easier to get too much of a bad thing.  What we search out each year are movies that, while failed, offer something camp; something so awful that it is funny but not so awful that it is unwatchable.  We have been laughing “with” all evening; now it is time to laugh “at.”

    Candidates for this year, together with some that have already been rejected, include the following:

    Santa Claus Conquers the Martians This incredibly cheesy 1964 movie makes every list of “ten worst Christmas movies” as well as “ten worst movies ever.”  The premise:  The Martians kidnap Santa Claus because there is no one on Mars to give presents to the Martian kids.  Apparently no one cares about the rights on this one, so if you are tempted you can see the whole debacle, including the original title song "Hooray for Santy Claus," at this YouTube site.  (Watch closely -- an eight year old Pia Zadora plays one of those mini-Martians.)  Special effects include what charitably  appear to be five dollar masks and action sequences where everyone leans to the right when the spaceship veers left.  We’ve seen this one before.  I’m still looking for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode featuring the movie.  Score; Watchable, but two or more scotches will likely be required.  

    Santa with Muscles Hulk Hogan stars in this 1996 film about an evil millionaire who gets amnesia, hides from pursuers by donning a Santa costume, and then believes that he is Santa after seeing himself in a mirror.  Ed Begley, Jr. also stars as an evil scientist intent on taking over an orphanage for some obscure reason.  Movie critic Joe Leydon wrote “John Murlowski directs with all the enthusiasm of someone going through the motions to pay off a debt.”  Score: As yet unseen, but a candidate for a two scotch watch.

    Jingle All the Way Yet another 1996 Christmas movie that consistently makes the “worst 10 Christmas movies” list.  More money was spent on this film than on any other in the list but, by all accounts, it still does not work.  Arnold Schwwarzenegger in his pre-governator days stars as a harried parent trying to secure the hottest toy of the year.  Comparing this movie to the Hulk Hogan opus discussed above, film critic Chris Hicks said that the Hulk’s movie "makes Arnold Scwarzenegger seem like Laurence Olivier.”  I have yet to see this movie, but it is a favorite of our kids and a likely watch this year.  Score:  Sight unseen, but a candidate for watching with the first scotch of the evening.

    Santa Claus aka Santa Claus versus the Devil  This 1959 Mexican production has garnered several critics’ nomination for worst movie ever filmed.  (An awesome feat – that means it defeated the horrible -- but non-Christmas -- Plan 9 from Outer Space, starring Bela Lugosi and his chiropractor, who filled in for Bela after he died in mid-filming.)  Anyway, this Mexican entrant in the Christmas sweepstakes tells the story of Santa and his best friend Merlin the Magician who are off to thwart the Devil’s plan to kill Santa and, in the words of the film’s promo piece, “make all of the kids in the world do evil.”  Apparently no one cares about copyright protection on this Christmas turkey either -- the whole film is a click away on YouTube.  Score:  sight unseen, but we will likely take a peak this Christmas.  A candidate for a two and a half scotch watch.  Also a film where one senses the remote should be kept handy just in case.

    Christmas Vacation 2 – Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure  This 2003 TV movie sequel to the classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was apparently shown once, and only once, on network TV.  The sequel, as the name implies, jettisons the Griswold clan, leaving us only with Cousin Eddie and his . . . “brood.”  What were they thinking?  The WebSite DVD Verdict calls the film a "bedsore of a movie" and suggests that any copy should be "thrown into a burlap sack, weighted down with rocks, and tossed into the closest body of water."  Score: I’m not going to even try it.  

    A Christmas Carol – the Musical  Not to be confused with Albert Finney’s very passable 1970 musical Scrooge, this 2004 made-for-TV film stars Kelsey Grammer as Scrooge and has Jason Alexander playing Marley’s ghost. And – worse – the movie is not just a musical, it is virtually an opera – almost everything is sung.  I mean everything. One reviewer summed up the film as follows: “Never in all my days have I ever seen such a turgid remake of what can only be described as one of the most heartwarming Christmas events.” Score:  As noted, I’m a huge Christmas Carol fan (I even liked Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which, by the way, featured better music than this version.) I tried to watch this film when it aired in 2004 and turned it off within 10 minutes when it became evident that no one was going to (1) stop singing, or (2) sing adequately. Score:  Unwatchable.  Cannot be saved even by scotch.

    An American Carol  This 2008 film played in theaters for about a week. It is hard to classify it strictly as a Christmas movie since it takes the Dickens premise and then shifts the underlying holiday to July 4 and re-invents the story as one involving a liberal movie producer who, in all but name, is Michael Moore, and who has forgotten the meaning of patriotism. He is visited by three ghosts including (see above) Kelsey Grammer as General George Patton, a re-invented “ghost of Independence Days past.”  If that were not enough, Leslie Nielsen, in one of his final films, appears as Osama Bin Laden.  Film critic Sam Graham had this to say about the movie: “It’s been suggested that An American Carol wasn’t screened for reviewers prior to its theatrical release because the predominantly left-leaning critics would pan the film merely because of its conservative subject matter, thus torpedoing its box office potential .There’s some justification for that belief, but there’s another reason that certain films aren’t pre-screened: because they’re not good . . ..” Score: I have yet to watch this movie, but am likely to give it a try this Christmas. Having said this, I will be surprised if I get through more than 10 minutes. Three scotches and keep the remote well in hand.

   The Star Wars Holiday Special  Although not truly a “story,” this 1978 television special at least has a story-line that attempts to tie things together -- Chewbacca and Hans Solo visit Kashyyk, Chewbacca's home world, to celebrate “Life Day.” The special featured all of the actors from the original Star Wars trilogy and is universally (in a galaxy not that far away) judged to be one of the most horrible television programs ever aired. Some of the cast members have at times denied that the program even existed. George Lucas has spent a great deal of effort ensuring that it will never be re-broadcast. To quote Lucas, "if I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it." In similar tone, David Hofstede, author of What Were They Thinking?:  The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History, ranked the holiday special at number one, calling it "the worst two hours of television ever."  While the show was never re-broadcast and never released on tape or DVD, if you want to see just how bad a film can be, there are original copies (recorded off the air in glorious VHS) that are available on YouTube. Full length versions are relentlessly blocked by "the Federation," but the smaller snippets persist.  This one contains the first ten minutes, which, in truth, is all you need.   Score: Unwatchable. But having said that, you should try just the first few minutes, scotch firmly in hand, to see how a group of talented people can come up with something this totally wrong-headed. Jaw dropping is the only response to the overly long and totally incomprehensible segment set in Chewbacca’s home near the beginning of the film. As actor and critic Ralph Garman observed, “it's so bad that it actually comes around to good again, but passes it right up.”

Happy Holidays!