Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Happy Birthday, Rex Stout
The creator of orchid-loving detective Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout was born on Dec 1, 1886. In addition to writing more than 50 Wolfian novels and other works (I was astonished to learn that he was "Anonymous" on a political thriller called The President Vanishes [1934]), Stout served as a yeoman aboard Theodore Roosevelt's yacht Mayflower, where he earned a lot more money playing whist with the crew than his Navy pay.

I remain an unrepentant fan of the William Conrad-Lee Horsley "Nero Wolfe" TV show of 1981.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Suggested Mystery Movies

For those looking for possible gifts for the mystery lover on their holiday shopping list, here are some suggested mystery movies that are available on DVD:
  • The Spiral Staircase, dir. Robert Siodmak (1946). In 1915, a serial killer menaces a New England town, a mute Dorothy McGuire, and a bedridden Ethel Barrymore. The film is based on Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White, who also wrote The Lady Vanishes.
  • Force of Evil, dir. Abraham Polonsky, perf. John Garfield (1948). A shady attorney involved in the numbers racket struggles to save his brother from ruin and Mob retribution.
  • D.O.A., dir. Rudolph Maté, perf. Edmond O’Brien (1950). An accountant discovers that he has been given a slow-acting poison and races against time to find his killer.
  • Dead Again, dir. Kenneth Branagh (1991). Branagh makes an interesting attempt to marry a Hitchcockian-style film to a modern thriller in this tale of a past murder that echoes in the present. Memorable performances include Andy Garcia as a scruffy reporter and Robin Williams as an oddball psychiatrist turned grocery clerk.
  • Shattered, dir. Wolfgang Petersen (1991). A wealthy man, played by Tom Berenger, wakes up after a car accident with no memory as to who he is and the uneasy feeling that what he is told about himself is not the truth. Look for Bob Hoskins as a rumpled private investigator.
And look for these that are not available on DVD but perhaps may be on the late-night film fest near you:
  • On Dangerous Ground, dir. Nicholas Ray (1952). Disillusioned detective Robert Ryan on the trail of a killer falls in love with the killer's blind sister (played by Ida Lupino).
  • Twenty-Three Paces to Baker Street, dir. Henry Hathaway (1956). Van Johnson in a surprisingly adept turn as a blind playwright who overhears a kidnapping plot. From the novel by Philip MacDonald.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Charlotte Armstrong, Pt 5

The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943; rpt 1992) is one of Armstrong's three novels that feature professor detective Macdougal Duff. His former student Alice Brennan has decided to marry her rich employer Innes Whitlock. Their visit to Whitlock's three half-sisters, who are handicapped in various ways (blind, deaf, missing an arm), results in various mishaps to Innes: an attempted poisoning, a narrow escape from a falling lamp, and a crack-up with the car after a sign indicating a detour is mysteriously removed. Or are they mishaps, as Innes is thinking about writing a new will?

The gothic elements of the three sisters may be a bit off-putting to some, but this is another of Armstrong's skillfully told tales of a warped household. Readers will like Fred, the stalwart chauffeur who reveals that he attended college on a football scholarship.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Lucy Maud Montgomery

"It is the most chilling thing in the world to say something to a person and be met by a blank wall of non-comprehension . . . So, as a rule, I am very careful to be shallow and conventional where depth and originality are wasted."
-- Letter from Lucy Maud Montgomery to G. B. MacMillan, Dec 3, 1905 (My Dear Mr. M, Oxford UP, 1992)

I was thinking, in the midst of the hoopla for the new Pride and Prejudice film, that there's another writer that I consider in the same terms as Austen, and that's Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942). Like Austen, Montgomery knew her characters and society inside and out, and we know people just like the ones that she writes about. Also like Austen (and Louisa May Alcott), Montgomery had a marvelous sense of humor.

And I'm not just talking Anne of Green Gables and its numerous sequels. Emily Climbs (1925) deals with the main character's struggles to be a writer, including fighting her loved ones' misapprehensions about the level of a writer's income (sound familiar?). I'm singling out The Blue Castle (1926), which I ran across on a fabulous Web site, Stump the Bookseller, which focuses on long-lost and reprinted treasures in children's literature. It's the sort of site where you can say, "I read a book in 1910 with a green cover. Do you know what it's called?" This bookseller usually does.

In The Blue Castle, a young woman who has led a dreary life among her critical and colorless relatives and is constantly compared to her beautiful and selfish cousin finds herself wondering, "Is that all there is?" When her doctor gives her a year to live because of a heart condition, she runs off to the woods with the bad boy of the town, sending her relatives into apoplexy, and cares for an ill friend that the town has deemed an outcast.

Surely Montgomery's message here is "Carpe Diem," and it's told in The Blue Castle with wisdom, humor, and grace.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Charlotte Armstrong, Pt 4

In The Turret Room (1965), a young woman hides the troubled ex-husband of her cousin, who is accused of attacking his former wife and mother-in-law. The young woman suspects, because he has been institutionalized, that he is being set up.

Once again, Armstrong provides taut suspense and a chilling view of a monster that can lurk behind a pretty face.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Mystery Advice from the Masters

I came across a 1967 reprint of the 1945 Writing Detective and Mystery Fiction (ed. A. S. Burack), with a line-up of contributors to make any potential mystery writer drool. There's S. S. Van Dine's classic "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" (Rule #7: "There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better."). There's Dorothy L. Sayers's lucid "Detective Fiction: Origins and Development" ("The art of self-tormenting is an ancient one, with a long and honourable literary tradition") and John Creasey (he of the 600-novel output after 743 rejection slips prior to his first sale) explaining that "[w]riting more, in nine cases out of ten, is only a question of wanting to write more." There's Mary Stewart on setting ("What a writer is doing is to open a gateway on someone else's imagination.")

In addition, A. A. Fair, aka Erle Stanley Gardner, discusses his approach to writing the mystery with a touching humility. Says Gardner, "Personally I like a story that is just a little short of the hard-boiled school. A mystery story that has an element of humor, a puzzling plot, and a style of narration that makes for swift action . . . That, of course, is the ideal toward which I strive, the goal I seek to attain. Probably better than anyone else, I realize how far I miss that goal."

This from the man whose novels once sold 26,000 copies per day.

This book demonstrates how in writing, there really is no new problem under the sun, and how much these seasoned practitioners can still teach us.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Max Perkins

Several times a year, I open one of my copies of Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins (1950; rpt 1979). Perkins (1884-1947) was the famed Scribner's editor of Taylor Caldwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, S. S. Van Dine, and a host of others and (what I tell younger readers) grandfather of the actor Perry King.

It's always heartening, especially when writing may not be going well, to read the letters of a man "in love with words," as his biographer A. Scott Berg (Max Perkins: Editor of Genius) once put it.
  • Perkins to Rawlings: ". . .when I write to you in that do-as-it-seems-right-to-you way, it is because it has always been my conviction---and I do not see how anyone could dispute the rightness of it---that a book must be done according to the writer's conception of it, as nearly perfectly as possible, and that the publishing problems begin then. That is, the publisher must not try to get a writer to fit the book to the conditions of the trade, etc. It must be the other way around."
  • Perkins to Marcia Davenport: "I really think the great difficulty in bringing The Valley of Decision into final shape is the old one of not being able to see the forest for the trees. There are such a great number of trees. We must somehow bring the underlying scheme or pattern of the book into emphasis, so that the reader will be able to see the forest in spite of the many trees. And that will mean reducing the number of trees, if we can possibly manage it---though, so far, I haven't found that easy."
  • Perkins to Rawlings again: "...the sales department always want a novel. They want to turn everything into a novel. They would have turned the New Testament into one, if it had come to us for publication, and they could have."
  • Perkins to Fitzgerald: "Don't ever defer to my judgment. . .a writer of any account must speak solely for himself."
And I think the 12 Aug 1938 letter from Thomas Wolfe to Perkins (after Wolfe had left Scribner's) just before Wolfe died is one of the most touching and beautifully written pieces that one can ever read:

"... [I] wanted to write you and tell you, no matter what happens or has happened, I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that 4th of July day 3 yrs. ago when you met me at the boat, and we went out on the cafe on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below---"

Monday, November 07, 2005

Charlotte Armstrong, Pt 3

The Unsuspected (1946; rpt 1967, 1970) opens with a man and woman discussing their impending revenge on the person whom they blame for their relative's death. Was it suicide or murder? To find out, they will infiltrate the man's household and do not care who will be used in the process.

Although this novel features one moment where the reader wishes to shake the heroine silly, it is a perceptive and disturbing look at how a twisted, charismatic personality can hold others in thrall. The Unsuspected was made into a movie (1947) starring Claude Rains, Constance Bennett, and Hurd Hatfield.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Charlotte Armstrong, Pt 2
Dream of Fair Woman (1966, rpt. 2004) focuses on the following: A beautiful, mysterious girl falls asleep in a boarding house and will not wake up. She has no ID and no personal belongings. Many people with their own agendas step forward to claim her, but then a body turns up that is the spitting image of the girl. The son of the boarding house owner is determined to protect the girl and find out what's going on.

This is a remarkably wise and prescient novel on the question of identity and how men project their ideals onto women, which also features some fabulous characters. I'm particularly fond of a nutty lady who runs around in a white robe bound with a gold cord.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Charlotte Armstrong, Pt 1
I came across author Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969) when I was doing some research for my radio show on mysteries. Armstrong won the Edgar for Best Novel in 1957 for A Dram of Poison, the last American woman to do so until Julie Smith in 1991.

As 2005 is Armstrong's centenary, I decided to delve into Armstrong's oeuvre and have been blown away by her skill in pacing, building suspense, and creating believable characters. A Dram of Poison is an unusual novel with several unexpected turns: An older man despairing of life with his younger wife and bossy sister decides to commit suicide but mislays the unmarked bottle of poison on a bus. He then must race against time to find it before disaster strikes an innocent victim, aided by a Saroyan-like group of individuals that he picks up along the way. A masterful, fascinating work.

I plan to talk about other Armstrong works in future posts.
In the Beginning...

Here beginneth something new: a blog where I hope to share my thoughts on literary and other matters, named in honor of my dear friend Bonnie DeBold, a fellow Bunburyist from college days.

What is a Bunburyist? It's a term invented by Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Algernon Moncrieff has created "an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury" to extricate himself from boring societal obligations so he can do what he pleases. The minute Algernon's bombastic Aunt Augusta tries to commandeer him for a dinner party, poof! Bunbury has a relapse. Enchanted by Wilde's premise, I've featured a sleuthing Bunbury who is not all that he seems in two mystery short stories ("A Roman of No Importance," "Lady Windermere's Flan"), and it struck me that "The Bunburyist" was a good title for a blog, as we all may not be what we seem.