Friday, November 30, 2007

Happy birthday, John Dickson Carr.

Locked room mystery master John Dickson Carr (aka Carr Dickson, Carter Dickson, and Roger Fairbairn) was born today in Pennsylvania in 1906. He died in 1977.

Carr's father was Wooda Nicholas Carr, who served in Congress from 1913 to 1915. When he was 23, his first novel, It Walks by Night (1930), was published by Harper and sold 15,000 copies. His sleuths include Henri Bencolin, Gideon Fell (modeled on G. K. Chesterton), and Sir Henry Merrivale. Carr, whose output exceeded 70 novels, also wrote frequently for radio, including the series Suspense. He was the first American member of the famed Detection Club, received an Edgar in 1950 for his biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, and was selected as a Grand Master in 1963. Ellery Queen called him "a master of deliberate, yet completely honest, misdirection" (Queen's Quorum 98).

Crippen & Landru is working on Thirteen to the Gallows and Other Plays by Carr and producer Val Gielgud (brother of John), which is a book of previously unpublished stage plays. For more on Carr's life and work, see Douglas G. Greene's John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles. Sadly, Carr's contributions to the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone list (The Crooked Hinge, 1938; The Judas Window, 1938; Lord of the Sorcerers, 1946) are out of print.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Moose and Squirrel.

Today marks the 48th anniversary of the debut of Jay Ward's Rocky and Bullwinkle, whose characters include Russian spies Boris and Natasha and the Canadian champion of law and order Dudley Do-Right. To hear the Dudley Do-Right theme, go here.

Anyone else remember the Kirward Derby?

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Early Years of Random House.

I've been reading Dear Donald, Dear Bennett, which are the letters between Random House partners Donald Klopfer and Bennett Cerf, when Klopfer was serving in the US Army Air Corps during World War II. It's a fascinating discussion of publishing that includes literary parties, such as one given by John Gunther, which became so, well, animated that a rhumbaing couple fell down the stairs.

I've been most interested in the mystery-related mentions. There's Cerf talking about an "electrified" sales staff over "the new Mignon Eberhart book" (probably Wolf in Man's Clothing, 1942, given the date of the letter). There's glee over acquiring "Frances Crane, whose detective novels sell about as well as Dorothy Disney's, away from Lippincott" (121). There's satisfaction over Margaret Millar: "Margaret Millar's The Iron Gates [1945] is tops in its line and I think we'll be able to run that up to between 15,000 and 20,000 too" (205). There's a swipe or two at Kenneth Fearing, best known for his later The Big Clock (Harcourt, 1946; filmed 1948; remade as No Way Out, 1987). To wit: "Kenneth Fearing has turned in some stinker that he dug out of the trunk in an obvious effort to end his contract with us. We are going to let him get away with it" (34-35).

And this from Cerf, to be filed under the category Famous Last Words:
The beautiful part about it all is that the setup can remain a simple one, right under our own control, and with no possibility, in my opinion, of ever developing into a sprawling and unmanageable menagerie like the Doubleday outfit. You know that I share your abhorrence for impersonal "big business." I don't think Random House will ever get into that category. (148)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Happy birthday, Charlaine Harris.

Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels with paranormal elements and the series featuring psychic Harper Connelly, turns 56 today. The Sookie TV series, called True Blood and starring Anna Paquin, has gone into production for HBO. Harris will be Malice Domestic's guest of honor in April.

The latest Harper Connelly novel is An Ice Cold Grave; the latest Sookie novel is All Together Dead. Sookie also appears in a new short story in Many Bloody Returns.

Photo credit: Caroline Grayshock.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Happy birthday, Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Playwright and author Frances Hodgson Burnett, best known for Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), A Little Princess (1905), and The Secret Garden (1911), was born today in 1849 in Manchester, England. She emigrated to the United States, living in Tennessee; Washington, DC; and New York. She died in 1924.

For a Burnett book dealing with crime, consult the charming Editha's Burglar (1888, rpt. 1994), in which small Editha encounters a robber in her home and promptly reforms him.

In Burnett's The One I Knew Best of All (a memoir of her early years published in 1893), the young narrator contemplates sending a story to a publisher:
"I must have the right kind of paper," she argued, "because if I sent something that seemed queer to them they would think me silly to begin with. And I must write very plainly, so that it will be easy to read, and on only one side, because if they are bothered by anything it will make them feel cross and they will hate me, and hate my story too. Then, as to the letter I send with it, I must be very careful about that. Of course they have a great many such letters and they must be tired of reading them."

... Editors presented themselves to her as representing a distinct superhuman race. It seemed impossible that they were moved by the ordinary emotions and passions of mankind. (301, 303)
Plus ├ža change...

Friday, November 23, 2007

James M. Cain at Thanksgiving.

Here's another excerpt from James Thurber's The Years with Ross, which provides an endearing look at one-time New Yorker employee James M. Cain:
It seems that Cain liked to work on the floor, where there was a lot of room, and used to put the Talk [of the Town] department together down there. He once lifted high the hearts of Andy [E.B.] and Katharine White, at a Thanksgiving dinner at his apartment, by putting the turkey, platter and all, on the floor and carving it, blandly going on with the story he was telling, and he told stories exceedingly well. (129)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Pilgrim Detectives.

In honor of the holiday, listen to this clip from The West Wing, in which presidential speechwriter Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe) attempts to convince his long-suffering boss Toby Ziegler (played by Richard Schiff) of a hot new TV series idea.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Editing Rules from the New Yorker.

I'm always interested in writing advice (such as that offered by Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, William G. Tapply, and Carolyn Wheat). Here is a sample of 10 items by Wolcott Gibbs, a copy editor and drama critic for the New Yorker, from James Thurber's The Years with Ross (1957; rpt. 2001, 113-18). The full list runs to 31 items:

Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles
1. Writers always use too damn many adverbs. On one page recently, I found eleven modifying the word "said." "He said morosely, violently, eloquently, so on." . . . Anyway, it is impossible for a character to go through all these emotional states one after the other. Lon Chaney might be able to do it, but he is dead.

2. Word "said" is O.K. Efforts to avoid repetition by inserting "grunted," "snorted," etc., are waste motion and offend the pure in heart.

3. Our writers are full of cliches, just as old barns are full of bats. There is obviously no rule about this, except that anything that you suspect of being a cliche undoubtedly is one and had better be removed.

5. Our employer, Mr. [Harold] Ross, has a prejudice against having too many sentences beginning with "and" or "but." He claims that they are conjunctions and should not be used purely for literary effect. Or at least only very judiciously.

7. The repetition of exposition in quotes went out with the Stanley Steamer:

Marion gave me a pain in the neck.
"You give me a pain in the neck, Marion," I said.

This turns up more often than you'd expect.

11. The magazine is on the whole liberal about expletives. ... When they are gratuitous, when the writer is just trying to sound tough to no especial purpose, they come out.

13. Mr. [Hobey] Weekes [an editor at the New Yorker] said the other night, in a moment of desperation, that he didn't believe he could stand any more triple adjectives. "A tall, florid and overbearing man called Jaeckel." Sometimes they're necessary, but when every noun has three adjectives connected with it, Mr. Weekes suffers and quite rightly.

20. The more "As a matter of facts," "howevers," "for instances," etc., etc. you can cut out, the nearer you are to the Kingdom of Heaven.

25. On the whole, we are hostile to puns.

31. Try to preserve an author's style if he is an author and has a style. Try to make dialogue sound like talk, not writing.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Holiday Movies.

Long before the turkey emerges from the oven, one can tell that Christmas is coming by the appearance of other turkeys: asinine holiday movies such as Fred Claus. The formula for these seems to be (1) a male main character chases 500,000 women before learning the True Meaning of Christmas or (2) a female main character does incredibly stupid things involving arrogant, annoying men before discovering the True Meaning of Christmas.

Perhaps you would like to see a holiday film with an actual plot and characters with brains in their heads. Avoiding the ubiquitous A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, and Miracle on 34th Street, I recommend the following:

1. The Bishop's Wife. 1947. Angel Cary Grant teaches Bishop David Niven about vocation and what's important in life during the Christmas season. Great performances by supporting players Gladys Cooper, Monty Woolley, and James Gleason.

2. Remember the Night. 1940. Writ. Preston Sturges. Perf. Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray. Prosecutor MacMurray takes cynical shoplifter Stanwyck home for the holidays. Outstanding performances by both Stanwyck and MacMurray prior to Double Indemnity; remarkable ending.

3. Holiday Affair. 1949. Widow Janet Leigh and son befriend down-on-his-luck Robert Mitchum at Christmastime. What woman would possibly choose boring lawyer Wendell Corey over Mitchum? Please.

4. While You Were Sleeping. 1995. At Christmas, Sandra Bullock is caught between two brothers: furniture maker Bill Pullman and lawyer Peter Gallagher. Also has one of the cinema's great lines ("Argentina has great beef. Beef, and Nazis.").

5. The Gathering. 1977. Dying executive Ed Asner has one chance, Christmas, to unite his scattered and alienated family. Features a group of fine actors: Bruce Davison, Veronica Hamel, Gregory Harrison, Lawrence Pressman, Maureen Stapleton, Gail Strickland, Edward Winter, Stephanie Zimbalist.

6. Stalag 17. 1953. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. William Holden, Otto Preminger, Peter Graves, Don Taylor. Nothing says Christmas like the unmasking of a Nazi spy.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Don't Mess with Mister In-Between.

Lyricist Johnny Mercer, who wrote the words for "Jeepers Creepers," "Skylark," "Laura," and numerous other works, was born today in Savannah in 1909. He died in 1976.

His oeuvre encompasses more than 1,000 compositions. Mercer's contributions that appear in mystery-related films include "Cowboy from Brooklyn" (They Made Me a Criminal, 1939); "Blues in the Night" (Lady Gangster, 1942); "I Remember You" (The Glass Key, 1942); "Palsy Walsy" (They Got Me Covered, 1943); "Accentuate the Positive" (The Blue Dahlia, 1946); "Too Marvelous for Words" (Dark Passage, 1947); "One for My Baby" (Macao, 1952); and "Charade" (Charade, 1963). He won Oscars for "The Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe;" "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening;" "Moon River;" and "Days of Wine and Roses." A cofounder of Capitol Records, he also was a painter; an episode of Antiques Roadshow featured a visitor who owned one of his paintings.

To listen to clips from Mercer's works, go here. For a look at the Mercer exhibit at Georgia State University, go here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Beverley Nichols, continued.

I blogged earlier about Beverley Nichols's The Moonflower Murder (1955). I recently finished Nichols's Murder by Request (1960), in which financier Sir Owen Kent enlists sleuth Horatio Green when he receives anonymous letters and phone calls stating that he will die within the week. Green accompanies Sir Owen to a health resort owned by Sir Owen's sister and fanatical brother-in-law, and, as prophesied, Sir Owen is shot amid a roomful of people, many of whom have excellent reasons for wanting him dead.

The pudgy Green's doleful contemplation of his allotted glass of carrot juice and subsequent sneaking out for a steak will strike a sympathetic chord with any dieting reader. The tabloid account of the murder, ladled with gloriously overwrought prose ("It happened last night, at nine o'clock precisely. That hour will be forever graven on the tablets of memory"), suggests that Nichols was poking fun at Fleet Street, as he worked as a journalist during his career. The novel has some neat twists, sober wrestling by Green over ethical dilemmas (e.g., would the revelation of the murderer harm more people than it would help), and terrific writing such as the following:
[Superintendent Waller] had always loved the song of the wind in the pine trees. His life had been filled with very different echoes. The sound of voices raised in altercation, the wail of police cars, shrilling through mean city streets, the short, hoarse bark of a revolver in the dark . . . the final full- stop to the story of a human soul. It was nicer under the pine trees. (120)
Sadly, Nichols's mysteries are out of print.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mysteries in the Trenches.

What did Britain's servicemen like to read during World War I? According to A.A. Milne, they devoured stories featuring private detective Sexton Blake (read more about it on George Simmers's Great War blog; go here for George Orwell's mention of Blake).

Blake, originally created by Harry Blyth, debuted in 1893, and more than 170 writers penned tales of his adventures over the course of some 70 years. All things Blake may be found here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Happy birthday, Charlotte MacLeod.

The sorely missed Charlotte MacLeod, creator of the Sarah Kelling-Max Bittersohn series and the Peter Shandy series under her own name and books under the pseudonym Alisa Craig featuring mountie Madoc Rhys and the Grub-and-Stakers gardening sleuths, was born today in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1922. She died in 2005.

The Kelling-Bittersohn novels have a certain screwball quality to them, such as in The Family Vault (1979) when the extremely WASPy Sarah and Max find it necessary to go undercover(?) in Chinese costume. A favorite of the Christmas season is Rest You Merry (1978), where Professor Shandy finds himself embroiled in a heated competition involving tacky house holiday decorations and a dead body. The Craig books abound in eccentrics.

MacLeod, a founder of the American Crime Writers League and an Edgar nominee for The Corpse in Oozak's Pond (1987) and We Dare Not Go A-Hunting (1980), also wrote a biography of Mary Roberts Rinehart, Had She But Known (1994).

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month.

"I detached myself from the others and walked slowly up Whitehall, with my heart sinking in a sudden cold dismay. Already this was a different world from the one that I had known during four life-long years, a world in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, in which themselves and their careers and their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. And in that brightly lit, alien world I should have no part. . . . The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were dead and would never return."

Armistice Day 1918
Vera Brittain,
Testament of Youth (1933) 462-63.

Save the Washington, DC World War I memorial.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Happy birthday, John P. Marquand.

John P. Marquand, a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Late George Apley (1937) and renowned in mysterydom as the creator of Japanese intelligence officer Mr. Moto, was born today in 1893 in Wilmington, Delaware. Marquand was the nephew of transcendentalist Margaret Fuller and a cousin of architect Buckminster Fuller. By the time of the author's death in 1960, Mr. Moto had appeared in six novels (No Hero; Thank You, Mr. Moto; Think Fast, Mr. Moto; Mr. Moto Is So Sorry; Last Laugh, Mr. Moto; and Stopover: Tokyo) and eight films, and Marquand had produced more than a dozen highly lucrative mainstream novels and a number of short stories.

Sadly, No Hero—Marquand's contribution to the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone list—is out of print.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Happy birthday, Ivan Turgenev.

Russian playwright and novelist Ivan Turgenev, best known for Fathers and Sons (1862) and A Month in the Country (1850), was born today in 1818. He died in 1888.

Turgenev, a pioneer of the realistic novel, popularized the concept of nihilism through his character Bazarov in Fathers and Sons. Part of a literary circle that included Zola, Maupassant, and Flaubert, he also was a generous promoter of the works of his fellow Russian writers in the West.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Happy birthday, Bram Stoker.

Bram Stoker, whose writing output was overshadowed by one novel, Dracula (1897), was born today in Dublin in 1847. By the time of his death in April 1912, he had produced eleven novels, four nonfiction works, a number of short stories, and various pieces for the London Telegraph (Valancourt Books is reprinting some of his rarer titles).

In the Department of Strange but True Historical Meetings, read about this 1887 encounter among Stoker, actor Henry Irving (Stoker served as his manager at one point in his career), and Buffalo Bill Cody.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Happy birthday, Harold Ross.

New Yorker founder and Algonquin Round Table member Harold Ross was born today in 1892. He died in 1951. Ross first worked as a journalist at the Salt Lake City Tribune, Sacramento Union, and San Francisco's Call before enlisting and eventually working on Stars and Stripes during World War I. The New Yorker debuted in 1925, according to Ross, as "a reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life."

For more on Ross, read James Thurber's The Years with Ross (1959) or Thomas Kunkel's Letters from the Editor: The New Yorker's Harold Ross (2000).
Ross was apparently intensely devoted to a continuing department called "Are You a New Yorker?", a series of questions such as "Where is the morgue?" and "On what days is admission charged to the Bronx Zoo?" Clipped to this particular questionnaire was a tart note from a male subscriber which read, simply, "Who gives a damn?" — James Thurber, The Years with Ross (rpt. 2001, 25).

Monday, November 05, 2007

Happy birthday, Carole Nelson Douglas.

Former journalist Carole Nelson Douglas, author of the Irene Adler and Midnight Louie series, not to mention science fiction/fantasy works and numerous short stories, turns 63 today. Her latest books include Spider Dance, Dancing with Werewolves, and Cat in a Quicksilver Caper.

Photo: Carole and feline friend Joya

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Beverley Nichols.
I have never understood this strange prejudice against complexes. I am a mass of complexes, and so are you, and I am quite devoted to them. The more the merrier, as far as I am concerned. — Beverley Nichols, Sunlight on the Lawn (148)
Beverley Nichols (1898-1983) seems to have been one of those versatile British men of letters. Writer, journalist, composer, and poet, he published his first book, Prelude, while he was at Oxford and covered the notorious Thompson-Bywaters murder trial in the early 1920s (listen to F. Tennyson Jesse's A Pin to See the Peep Show, based on the Thompson-Bywaters case, on BBC Radio 4 from Nov 5 to Nov 9th).

A friend of Noel Coward, Nellie Melba, and Queen Marie of Romania and a relative of John Masefield, Nichols caused considerable controversy when he confessed to trying to kill his alcoholic father in Father Figure (1972) and attacked Somerset Maugham in A Case of Human Bondage (1966) when Maugham falsely accused his dead wife of infidelity in print. (Best Nichols quote, quoting Coward on a photo of Maugham: "Dear Willie Maugham. The Lizard of Oz.")

Timber Press has reprinted Nichols's popular gardening books. He also wrote five mysteries featuring the mild-mannered Horatio Green, a keen gardener with a remarkable sense of smell: No Man's Street (1954), The Moonflower (aka The Moonflower Murder, 1955), Death to Slow Music (1956), The Rich Die Hard (1958), and Murder by Request (1960). I read The Moonflower Murder, in which a wealthy woman is killed in a house of scheming relatives and acquaintances. Despite some distracting episodes of "let's step outside the narrative now and look at Mr. Green" and Had-I-But-Known incidents, it's an interesting tale of a murder committed twice.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Oh My Fur and Whiskers.

Running through December 15 is the exhibit "The Afterlife of Alice in Wonderland," sponsored by the Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature (part of the George A. Smathers Libraries of the University of Florida). Images from early and contemporary Alice editions, film clips, and information about the exhibit can be viewed here. To celebrate the exhibit, there will be a tea party, appropriately enough, on November 7 at the library; it is open to the public.

Photo: "The Tea Party," an image from the exhibit "The Afterlife of Alice in Wonderland."

Friday, November 02, 2007

Twenty Years of Rankin, National Library of Scotland.

The exhibit "Crime Scene Edinburgh: Twenty Years of Rankin and Rebus" is now running until January 13th at the National Library of Scotland. An article and photos about the exhibit are posted here. Rebus creator Ian Rankin will appear at the library on November 27th to discuss Rebus's departure from the police force in Exit Music.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Happy birthday, Stephen Crane.

Stephen Crane---poet; journalist; and author of the classic Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), and other works---was born today in Newark, New Jersey, in 1871. He died in 1900 at age 28 of tuberculosis.

To read "A Tale of Mere Chance" (1896), Crane's parody of Edgar Allan Poe, go here. Other supernaturally oriented works include "Ghosts on the New Jersey Coast" (1894) and "The Ghostly Sphinx of Metedeconk" (1895).