Sunday, August 27, 2006

Happy birthday, Lady Antonia Fraser

Lady Antonia Fraser turns 74 today. Well-known for her historical works such as Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot, The Warrior Queens, and The Weaker Vessel, she also is an accomplished mystery writer with her series featuring journalist Jemima Shore, which began in 1977 with Quiet as a Nun and was adapted into the TV series Jemima Shore Investigates. Fraser has an amazing literary family: her mother is biographer Elizabeth Longford; her brother, nonfiction writer Thomas Pakenham; her sister, novelist Rachel Billington; and yes, she's married to playwright Harold Pinter.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Happy birthday, John Buchan

Baron Tweedsmuir, better known as Scottish thriller writer extraordinaire John Buchan, was born on August 26, 1875. He died in 1940 as Governor-General of Canada.

Buchan worked for British intelligence during WWI; served as a member of Parliament; and wrote historical fiction, criticism, poetry, history, and biography. But it is probably for his novel
The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), in which mining engineer Richard Hannay becomes embroiled in espionage, that he is best known because of the Alfred Hitchcock film of 1935 starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll (don't we all remember the chill we felt when Mr. Bad Guy holds up his hand, and we see along with Hannay that he is missing part of a finger).

The Thirty-Nine Steps was filmed two additional times, in 1959 starring Kenneth More, and in 1978 with Robert Powell, Karen Dotrice, and David Warner in one of his delicious villainous turns. Powell went on to star in a short-lived Thames television series "Hannay" (1988-89), but the scripts were not based on the other Hannay stories such as
Greenmantle (1916), Mr. Standfast (1919), and The Three Hostages (1924). It was rumored that after Hitchcock directed Family Plot that he was considering filming Greenmantle, which I regard as an attempt to return to his roots, but he died before these plans could come to fruition.

Buchan dubbed his thrillers "shockers," which he called
"the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible." He also wrote several novels with lawyer Edward Leithen, such as The Power-House (1913), The Dancing Floor (1926), and Sick Heart River (1941). For more information on Buchan, read Buchan's memoir, Memory Hold-the-Door; John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier by Andrew Lownie; or visit the John Buchan Society Web site, which also has a complete bibliography of his work.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Happy birthday, Anthony Boucher

The industrious critic/editor/sci-fi author/mystery writer Anthony Boucher, aka William Anthony Parker White, who gave his name to mystery convention Bouchercon, was born on August 21, 1911. He died in 1968. He received the Edgar Award for mystery criticism in 1946, 1950, and 1953 (go here for volumes of his collected reviews).

His intriguing Rocket to the Morgue, written under the pseudonym of 19th-century murderer H. H. Holmes, features thinly disguised versions of his sci-fi colleagues Hugo Gernsback, Robert Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard. His mysteries include locked-room murders The Case of the Solid Key and Nine Times Nine, and puzzle story The Case of the Seven of Calgary. He also wrote scripts for radio series such as Sherlock Holmes and The Casebook of Gregory Hood.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Happy birthday, H. P. Lovecraft

Master of weird fiction H. P. Lovecraft was born on this day in 1890. He died in 1937.

His stories include the Poe-inspired "The Rats in the Walls," "The Dunwich Horror," "The Whisperer in Darkness," and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. His work inspired authors such as Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian), and August Derleth. Several collections of his tales are published by Arkham House. For further details, go here.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Happy birthday, Georgette Heyer.

Georgette Heyer, beloved for her lively and meticulously researched Regency romances but also a fine mystery writer, was born on August 16, 1902. She died in 1974.

Heyer actually wrote her mysteries in conjunction with her husband, George Ronald Rougier. A particular favorite of mine is Behold, Here's Poison, with the son and heir who specializes in insulting all his relations, the born-again lady who insists on "testifying" at dinner, and a pseudo-prince who is constantly confused with the family dog (also named Prince). A friend of mine singles out Envious Casca as his favorite, dubbing it "the house party from hell."

A common affliction among Heyerites is reading and rereading her paperbacks until they fall apart, and then one must purchase new copies. My favorites among her Regencies include Cotillion (where Heyer accomplishes a rather neat switch on who we imagine the love interest to be), The Toll Gate (restless ex-soldier finds skullduggery and love in the countryside), and Frederica (bored marquis finds more than he bargained for in a pack of distant relatives).

For more on Heyer, you can read The Private World of Georgette Heyer by fellow novelist Jane Aiken Hodge, and Georgette Heyer: A Critical Retrospective has all sorts of intriguing material, including articles and short stories by Heyer. Go here to learn more about the Yahoogroup that discusses Heyer's work. Malice Domestic Ltd. has selected Heyer as its 2007 Ghost of Honor.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Happy birthday, Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Mary Roberts Rinehart, whose hugely successful mystery career spanned a half-century, would have been 130 today. She is buried in Arlington Cemetery. Undeservedly disparaged for creating the "Had-I-But-Known" approach to mystery writing, she was a writer of great gifts, and her play The Bat grossed over $9 million in the 1920s. I especially recommend The Man in Lower Ten (1909), with its Hitchcockian plot of a bored, staid lawyer who becomes immeshed in murder on a train and a particularly hilarious take on the amateur sleuth. Also take a look at MRR's nonfiction Kings, Queens, and Pawns (1915), her clear-eyed account of visiting the wounded in Belgian and French hospitals during WWI (MRR trained as a nurse) and interviewing the King and Queen of Belgium.

Photo: MRR out with her French bulldog, taken somewhere between 1920 and 1932.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Stan Freberg.

Over on Bill Crider's blog, there was a tribute to comedian Stan Freberg on the occasion of his 80th birthday this week. I've played some Freberg on my radio show "It's a Mystery," such as "Sam Splayed, Detective." On the "It's a Mystery" Web site, I've posted a clip from his 1957 radio show: the classic "St. George and the Dragonet." Go here to listen.