Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Obstinate Murderer (1938), by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novel The Obstinate Murderer (1938) was her fourth book published by the heavy-hitting American crime fiction publisher Dodd, Mead, after The Death Wish (1934), The Unfinished Crime (1935) and The Strange Crime in Bermuda (1937) (these crime novels had been preceded by two early crime novels, Miasma, 1931, and Dark Power, 1930).

Holding's earlier Dodd, Mead crime novels were much praised, and The Obstinate Murderer was so as well.  Saturday Review was struck by the "amazing deviltry and horror" that animated "the entire tale."  The New York Times Book Review noted that, in addition to being a "mystery story," Obstinate was "a fascinating study of twisted mentalities."

The novel, which Holding dedicated to Frank E. Blackwell then editor-in-chief of Detective Story Magazine, is strikingly short by today's standards, barely, in fact, at some 42,000 words by my count, a novel.  It's an interesting book for its time, though one that may be too economically sketched for many readers today.  It's also a needed reminder that the psychological crime novel existed in the US in the 1930s, right along with the hard-boileds, the cocktails and quips mysteries, the zanies and the neo-Gothics.

In the novel Arthur Van Cleef, a leisured idler and semi-drunk in early middle-age, is sought out by Russell Blackman, an eighteen-year-old lad he had briefly befriended ten years earlier, when Blackman was just eight and Van Cleef thirty.  Van Cleef had been friends with Blackman's Aunt Hilda, who died tragically young.  Blackman fondly recalls his friendship with Van Cleef (something the latter man barely remembers):

"When they realized how ill [Aunt Hilda] was, they sent me off to board at the day school I went to.  It was in the Easter holidays; nobody else there.  It was the first time I'd been away from home, and it was hell.  I didn't know what to do with myself.  I felt--forgotten.  And then you came, in your car. You brought me a steamer-basket full of cakes and chocolates, and fruit, with a big silver gauze bow on the handle....When my aunt died, you came again....You drove me home and you talked to me."

Blackman has grown up to be something of a universal genius, good at everything, but instinctively disliked by everyone.  Now idle, with an allowance of $6600 month (in today's dollars) to sustain him financially but emotionally cut off from his family, Blackman has decided to look up Van Cleef, the one person who was once kind to him.

Today it's easy to discern in Holding's depiction in the novel of the relationship between Van Cleef and Blackman--whom Holding describes as "an extraordinarily handsome boy, slim, almost slight in build, with a dark narrow face, brilliant with life"--a homosexual subtext on Blackman's part.  Later in the novel another exchange occurs between the two, about women:

"You're interested in women, aren't you?" said Russell.

"After all, such a lot of 'em around..." said Van Cleef.  "It would be a bit hard, not to notice 'em."

"But you like them."

"And you don't?"

"I don't."

"Unrequited love-making make you bitter?"

"I'm not bad-looking.  I'm not stupid.  And I have money.  I could have a pretty wide choice--if I wanted."

On the same day as his meeting with Russell, Van Cleef is called by his old friend Emilia Swan, whose husband, Bill, died suddenly a few years ago, to come visit her at her mansion in the small town of Blackhaven, which she now runs as a guest house.  She's being blackmailed, she hysterically tells Van Cleef.  Russell Blackman has a car, so off the pair goes to pay Mrs. Swan a call.  Blackman tells Van Cleef, he'd "like to be a super-detective, one of the scientific kind," and he soon gets his chance, when one of the guests at Mrs. Swan's guest house is poisoned.  More poisonings follow, along with deaths.

In some ways this novel resembles a book by Agatha Christie (at least as stereotyped), with a sort of American country house/ village setting, a genteel milieu, a closed circle of for the most part, rather flat suspects and a dialogue-heavy prose.  At one point in the novel, Van Cleef, beset by a rash of misdoings in a mansion, even wonders whether "there are any of those private detectives?  Like in a book...Quiet, gentlemanly young fellow....

But with Holding the emphasis is on not clues, but psychology.  I enjoyed The Obstinate Murderer, though I would not rank it, I must admit, with the best Holdings.  It's one time I felt that a Golden Age crime novel would have benefited from some greater fleshing-out of its ideas, characters and situations But check it out for yourself; it's available both in paperback and Kindle.  In its blurb for the book, Dodd, Mead recommend it to "the mystery connoisseur...the reader who appreciates a detective novel with substance and background"--surely you're one of those people, since you read this blog!

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Missing Queen and Other Mysteries of Genre History: The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction (2010)

The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction is a book of fewer than 200 pages with fourteen essays, including an four-page introduction by editor Catherine Ross Nickerson.  The other essays, all ranging from 8 to 15 pages, that follow Nickerson's introduction are:

Early American Crime Writing 
Poe and the Origins of Detective Fiction
Women Writers before 1960
The Hard-Boiled Novel
American Roman Noir
Teenage Detectives and Teenage Delinquents
American Spy Fiction
The Police Procedural on Literature and on Television
Mafia Stories and the American Gangster
True Crime
Race and American Crime Fiction
Feminist Crime Fiction
Crime in Postmodernist Fiction

There is lots here about hard-boiled, noir, police procedural, gender and race, as one would expected from a modern academic survey of American crime fiction.

In the "American Crime Fiction Chronology" given at the beginning of the book, fifteen works, chosen to reflect the content of the essays, are listed as milestones for the period 1841 to 1939:

1841 Edgar Allan Poe, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"
1866 Metta Fuller Victor, The Dead Letter

1878 Anna Katharine Greene, The Leavenworth Case
1908 Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Circular Staircase
1923 Carroll John Daly, "Three Gun Terry"
1925 Earl Derr Biggers, The House without a Key
1927 S. S. Van Dine, The Benson Murder Case (actually 1926)
1927 Franklin Dixon, The Tower Treasure
1929 Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest
1929 Mignon Eberhart, The Patient in Room 18
1930 Carolyn Keene, The Secret of the Old Clock
1934 James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
1934 Leslie Ford, The Strangled Witness
1938 Mabel Seeley, The Listening House
1939 Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

A clear pattern can be discerned in this material:

The Distant Founder: Poe
The Women: Victor, Green, Rinehart, Eberhart, Ford, Seeley
The Tough Guys: Daly, Hammett, Cain, Chandler
The Brains: Biggers, Van Dine
The Juveniles: Dixon, Keene

Going strictly by this outline one would conclude that American men after Poe gave little to the detective fiction genre, outside of hard-boiled and juvenile mystery. The only male authors of classical detective fiction listed for the near century between the appearances of "Rue Morgue" and The Big Sleep are the creators of Philo Vance and Charlie Chan.

When we look at the actual text of the essays themselves, even Van Dine and Biggers don't come out so well.

On page 1, Van Dine's rules for writing detective fiction are mentioned, dismissively.

On page 29 he is again dismissed, as an imitator of Agatha Christie.

On page 43 he is called an imitator of Arthur Conan Doyle and used as the usual hard-boiled punching bag for not writing about "reality" (though interestingly he is deemed "the era's most popular writer").

On page 136 it is claimed that his novel The Benson Murder Case is "widely acknowledged as the first American clue-puzzle mystery."

Earl Derr Biggers gets one lone mention, on account of having created an ethnic detective (see "Race and American Crime Fiction").

Rex Stout
Of course at least Van Dine and Biggers are mentioned.  The hugely popular and admired Rex Stout is another such fortunate fellow.

Though he missed out on the list of milestones, Stout nevertheless is mentioned in the text.

On page 47 he is noted for having cleverly merged hard-boiled and classical styles for commercial purposes.

On page 136 he is criticized, along with Van Dine, for having ignored race and gestured "more toward Europe than toward actual American cities," by writing about rich white bankers, stockbrokers and attorneys ("Race and American Crime Fiction").

Jacques Futrelle gets one mention, on page 29, as a "famous but ultimately minor" mystery writer (how the determination was reached that he was "ultimately minor" is not explained).

On the other hand, if you are looking for anything on Melville Davisson Post, Arthur B. Reeve, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Dickson Carr--was he counted as British?--or Ellery Queen, you will search in vain (wait, Gardner is listed as the author of an article).

Meanwhile, Anna Katharine Green gets two pages, Mary Roberts Rinehart three and Mignon Eberhart, Leslie Ford and Mabel Seeley together as a trio another two (even Carolyn Wells gets a line).

The editor of the Companion, the aforementioned Catherine Ross Nickerson, is the author of The Web of Iniquity, an interesting book that is about--you may not be surprised to learn this--Metta Fuller Victor, Anna Katharine Green and Mary Roberts Rinehart.  She also authored the Companion essay "Women Writers before 1960."

In her introduction to the Companion she writes:

It is only fairly recently that the multiple genres of crime writing have been taken up as subjects of academic study; before that, they were entirely in the hands of connoisseurs and collectors, with their endless taxonomies, lists and value judgments.  What Chandler opened up was a new way of looking at crime narratives, or rather looking through them, as lenses on the culture and history of the United States.

All well and good--though Nickerson sure seemed to be making a "value judgment" about Futrelle--and anyone familiar (alas! too few!) with my Masters of the Humdrum Mystery, Clues and Corpses or various blog articles knows that I too am very interested in mining detective fiction for what it may tell us about cultural history.  But it seems to me that the book Nickerson edited too often looks not through American crime fiction, but past it--past it, that is, when the crime fiction does not fit preconceived and circular notions of what American crime fiction is.

According to Nickerson there were two indigenous creative strains in American mystery: the female domestic novel/female Gothic (the English Bronte sisters and Mary Elizabeth Braddon are admitted as influences here, but not Wilkie Collins or Sheridan Le Fanu) and the male hard-boiled/noir.

It seems that what we think of as the "classical" Golden Age detective novel was about as American as spotted dick. Nickerson writes dismissively of Golden Age detective novels with their "puzzles and country houses full of amusing guests," declaring that they were "presided over by Agatha Christie and imitated by Americans like S. S. Van Dine."

just in case you were wondering....

So, if you were an American man writing mysteries with puzzles and upper middle-class class/wealthy milieus, you were part of a British country house mystery tradition and thus not worthy of inclusion in a historical survey of American mystery fiction; but if you were an American woman writing mysteries with puzzles and upper middle-class/wealthy milieus, you were part of the American female domestic novel/female Gothic tradition--even though some of this tradition was British and male--and you make it into the survey.

So the result is Leslie Ford, for example, but no Ellery Queen.  Ellery Queen is the American detective story, Anthony Boucher once wrote--but then I suppose Boucher was just one of those mere connoisseurs and collectors.  What did he know?

Note: This piece is a revision of an article originally written for Steve Lewis' Mystery*File. Looking back at it now, I see that I should have noted that the Companion overlooks Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Craig Rice, Elizabeth Daly, Helen McCloy, Helen Reilly, Cornell Woolrich and most mid-century American women suspense writers as well. I have a feeling that the latter omission won't be happening again in any future edition of the Companion (these women suspense writers are coming soon to the Library of America).

For more of my genre literature encounters with Catherine Ross Nickerson, connoisseurs and collectors, see my Mabel Seeley's Murders in MinnesotaPart One and Part Two.

Also you can use the search box to check out the numerous past posts I have made on Leslie Ford, Mignon Eberhart, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Carolyn Wells, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Craig Rice, Elizabeth Daly, Helen McCloy, Helen Reilly and, yes, even Ellery Queen.  Check out the posts on Rufus King, Patrick Quentin, Cornell Woolrich, Hugh Austin, George Bellairs and Todd Downing too.  Those guys were no slouches either.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dark Passage (1947), starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)
Lauren Bacall, who passed away two days ago at the age of 89, had not only a fabled film career, but was in a number of interesting crime films, including most notably The Big Sleep (1946), based on the Raymond Chandler novel, and Murder on the Orient Express (1974), based on the Agatha Christie novel. She also starred in Dark Passage (1947), based on the David Goodis novel, Key Largo (1948), based on the Maxwell Anderson play, Harper (1966), based on the Ross Macdonald novel The Moving Target, and Appointment with Death (1988), based on the Agatha Christie novel. To sum up, that's a Chandler film, two Christie films, a Ross Macdonald film and a David Goodis film (and I may be leaving out something)!

Bacall of course is known for the films she did with her first husband, the great Humphrey Bogart.  Since The Big Sleep and Key Largo are better known, I thought I would take a look at Dark Passage, based on the novel by mid-century crime writer David Goodis, who has been enjoying a great revival the last decade or so, since his embrace by the cultural gatekeeper Library of America.  I had never seen this film before, but happened to have the DVD around the house, so popped it in the player and found it quite interesting, though not, I would say, an absolute classic.

In Dark Passage Bogart plays an escaped convict, Vincent Parry, sentenced to life for the killing of his wife.  The film opens with his thrilling, if improbable, escape from San Quentin State Prison in a metal drum (the stunt where the drum falls off the truck and rolls down the hill is impressive, but I have to wonder whether Bogart's character really would have survived, let alone walked away like it was nothing). Parry hitches a ride with a young guy named Baker (Clifton Young, in a nice performance), who starts asking too many questions, so Parry knocks him out. Exit Baker--or does he?

be careful who you hitch with....

Happily, a beautiful young woman, Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), shows up, offering to hide Parry in her San Francisco apartment (Parry is having some day!). Jansen, an heiress whose father was unjustly executed for the murder of her stepmother, followed Parry's trial closely, believing that he too was innocent (I believe she heard he had escaped and was driving around looking for him in the vicinity of San Quentin).

Parry can't stay with her for long, however, so he sets out on his own (with $1000 she has given him!). Again Parry lucks out when the cabby he gets a ride with (an appealingly empathetic Tom D'Andrea), upon discerning Parry's identity, tells Parry he knows a doctor (a memorable Houseley Stevenson) who can surgically alter his appearance!

a cabby (Tom D'Andrea) takes a shine to a con

Parry is hep to this suggestion, but first he stops off with best friend, trumpet player George Fellsinger (Rory Mallinson--another good performance), and we get some back story on the murder of Parry's wife.  After Parry gets his surgery done he returns to Fellsinger's, only to find him dead, bludgeoned with his own trumpet! Not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, Parry picks up the trumpet and gets his fingerprints on it, assuring that he will be fingered for Fellsinger's murder, before hot footing it back to Jansen's apartment.

Oh, did I mention that up until now we haven't actually seen Bogart, just heard him?  The action has been cleverly filmed from his point of view (the film version of Chandler's The Lady in the Lake, which appeared the same year, was shot the same way as well, but less successfully as I understand it).

Anyway, for the next half hour we see Bogart in bandages and he can't speak (though he does some voice-overs).  During this time there is some more exposition when at Jansen's apartment we meet Jansen's friends Bob (Bruce Bennett) and Madge (a deliciously bitchy Agnes Moorehead; oddly Bennett and Moorehead both popped up in the film Without Honor, which I reviewed here recently).

a post-op Vincent Parry with Irene Jansen
at Jansen's to die for apartment

Finally Parry gets the bandages off and we are left with these questions: Will Parry find out who really killed his wife and who killed Fellsinger?  Will he ever make it out of San Francisco?  Will he get the beautiful girl?  There also is an additional plot wrinkle, which I won't detail.

I enjoyed Dark Passage, though it had one of the more unlikely plots I have encountered in a mystery film. Also I didn't find it very close to noir, with Parry not being, really, a very flawed guy at all (besides being kind of dumb, frankly).  Parry is not a character that gives Bogart a whole lot to do--though he does get a great naughty one-liner when, after getting out of the shower in Jansen's apartment, he thanks her for giving him a towel large enough "to cover my embarrassment."

Bacall is sultry yet sympathetic, all good girl, no femme fatale.  Most of the supporting performances are outstanding, especially that by Moorehead (her scene with Bogart was, I thought, the best acting scene in the film). Additionally, the exterior shots in San Francisco are great and I now want to own an apartment just like Irene Jansen's--Wow!

Parry pays a call on Madge (Agnes Moorehead)

So, while Dark Passage is not an immortal classic of mystery film, it is an enjoyable movie, and of course especially great viewing for Bogart and Bacall fans (and the DVD is great quality, with a nice special feature on the film). Lauren Bacall will be much missed.  I hope she and Bogart are sharing quips together again in some swanky bar in the beyond.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Digging Deep into the Mysteries of Character and Place: The Clay Hand (1950), by Dorothy Salisbury Davis

"There's no gas in the mine, they tell us," Billy keened over his empty glass. "Do you remember them telling us that in 1938, was it?  They're as pure as the mountain air.  And sure the graveyard's swimming with the pieces."  His voice rose like an evangelist's. "Their souls were exploded to heaven."

                                                             Dorothy Salisbury Davis, The Clay Hand (1950)

The Clay Hand (1950) followed The Judas Cat (1949) by a year
--both are superlative crime novels
(featured are the striking 1952 Bantam reprints)

In 1963 Collier Books reprinted Dorothy Salisbury Davis' The Clay Hand (1950), the author's second crime novel, as part of its Mystery Classics series.  In his short introduction General Editor Anthony Boucher praised the novel, set "somewhere near the point where West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio meet" (I'm guessing Wayne County, WV), for its convincing regionalism and depiction of character.

Boucher made note especially of the novel's sheriff character, Sam Fields, with his "almost Maigret-like patience and insight," and also what Boucher termed "two of the most interesting and uncategorizable women that ever a detective had to cope with."  He also praised Davis, with perhaps a whiff of mid-century chauvinism, for having, though a woman, "brought off the feat of successfully writing from a wholly male viewpoint."

I rib Boucher a bit for this last statement (matched by the Chicago Sun, which declared that Davis in her narration "never once betrays herself with a 'feminine' accent"), but in my estimation he was keenly perceptive in his praise of The Clay Hand, though this praise may have fallen rather on deaf ears at the time. While the novel also was lauded, several decades later, by Jon L. Breen, it was never reprinted again for half a century, when Open Road Media produced it, along with Davis' other crime novels, as an eBook, not too long before Davis' death this month, at the venerable age of 98.

Davis' third novel, A Gentle Murderer
(1951), was also part of the
Bantam 1952 reprint series
Readers familiar with Sarah Weinman's writing on mid-century women "domestic suspense" authors (much blogged about here lately) will know that Weinman laments the comparative neglect over the last several decades of these writers. While big presses certainly have been guilty of this neglect, smaller presses since the 1980s in my view have served some of these authors, such as Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong, well.

Yet I have to concede that for a long time Davis' older crime novels, with the partial exception of A Gentle Murderer, which was reprinted by Gregg Press and Avon in the early 1980s, disappeared down the cracks of commercial neglect (see here for an interview Weinman conducted with Davis last year; Weinman has also written about Davis in the most recent issue of Mystery Scene Magazine).

Why Davis, when not Millar or Armstrong?  Well, in the case of The Clay Hand, perhaps its sober regionalism made it less easy to sell in the mystery market.  It is difficult to pigeonhole the novel as "psychological suspense," the niche into which Millar and Armstrong--as well as other fine mid-century women crime writers such as Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Ursula Curtiss and the English author Celia Fremlin--have been placed (nor would I call it domestic suspense, nor that egregiously overused word, noir).

The Clay Hand really is, as Boucher says, a regional mystery novel--an uncommonly fine one. It is a long novel for the period, giving Davis room to create a convincing canvas of the drab, decaying coal mining town of Winston and its odd denizens. There is an intriguing mystery as well, one that dovetails wonderfully with character and place.

Dick Coffee, crusading newspaper journalist, has died in Winston, apparently of a fall over a cliff.  His best friend, sports editor Phil McGovern, and his widow, Margaret, come to Winston, where an inquest on his death is to be held.  Phil has a love-hate relationship with beautiful Margaret, which only gets more complicated when it becomes clear that Coffee may have been murdered (the novel is told from Phil's viewpoint).

There are many questions for Phil and the likable county sheriff, Sam Fields. Who was the woman with green wings (a wonderfully bizarre detail) the local boy reports having seen with Coffee in the hills above Winston before Coffee's death?  And what was Coffee doing in Winston, anyway?  He earlier had reported on that mine disaster in Naperville--was there something untoward also going on with the mines in Winston?

Then there's that wizened, widowed boarding house keeper, Mrs. Norah O'Grady, with whom Coffee was staying--what does she know?  And was Coffee having a fling with Rebecca Glasgow, the married daughter of Clauson, that eccentric old magician?  And does the recent asphyxiation death of loony Kenneth Laughlin in a closed section of one of the mines have any relation to Coffee's death?

As these questions indicate, there is an intricate, engrossing mystery in The Clay Hand, but the book also succeeds wonderfully as a study of character and place (there is an eventful climax as well). It is an unusually sophisticated mid-twentieth-century crime novel, and I hope it reaches a broader audience now, in the twenty-first century.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Dorothy Salisbury Davis (1916-2014)

Crime fiction writer Dorothy Salisbury Davis passed away this week at the age of 98.  One of the most notable mid-twentieth-century American crime writers, she published an impressive opening trio of crime novels: The Judas Cat (1949), The Clay Hand (1950) and A Gentle Murderer (1951).  John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books has reviewed the first and third of these books, so I thought I would try my own hand at the middle one, The Clay Hand, which was reprinted in Collier Books' Mystery Classics Series in 1963, with an introduction by Anthony Boucher, who declared the novel a masterpiece of American mystery regionalism.

Sarah Weinman, who included a Davis short story in her recent anthology of short fiction by women suspense writers, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, on her blog reprinted an interesting 1959 interview with Davis, in which the author opined about the differences between male and female mystery readers. Her views reflect the meteoric rise in popularity after the Second World War of hard-boiled fiction, to which Davis herself seems not much attracted: 

Women find in what I call the "mystery of manners" what they once found in romantic novels--the kind of world that hardly exists anymore.  Someone I like once said to [mystery writer] Ruth Fenisong, "I like your stories because they have servants in them." That about sums it up....Men [mystery readers] seem to find excitement in a sequence of violent action. Whereas women like to read about gentlemen, which they don't find in paperback fiction and possibly not in real life either....Most literate mysteries are written by Englishmen or women.

While I don't know whether that's quite fair to the American hard-boiled school (weren't Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, both active in the 1950s, writing "literate mysteries"?), Davis no doubt wrote her goodly share of crime tales that have the virtues of "mainstream" literature.  I will have my review of The Clay Hand up this weekend.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Gone West: The Norths Meet Murder (1940), by Richard and Frances Lockridge

Richard Orson Lockridge (1898-1982) was born in St. Joseph, Missouri. He entered journalism and in 1923 settled in New York to work with the New York Sun; he became the newspaper's drama critic in 1928. In 1932 he published Darling of Misfortune, a biography of actor Edwin Booth, brother of the infamous presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth.

In the 1930s Lockridge created the New York socialite characters Mr. and Mrs. North for a droll series of New Yorker sketches, some of which were collected in the book Mr. and Mrs. North in 1936. When his wife, Frances Louisa (Davis) Lockridge, conceived a plot for a mystery novel, Richard, who would do the actual writing of the Lockridge mysteries, placed the Norths, Jerry and Pam, into the book.  As Frances Lockridge pithily put it, "I think up interesting characters, and Dick kills them off."  The Norths stayed alive and kicking in Lockridge mysteries for nearly a quarter century, however.

the Lockridges plot murder while a fan looks on

The Lockridges published 26 mysteries with the Norths between 1940 and 1963, the year Frances Lockridge died (they also published crime novels without the Norths and Lockridge continued to publish North-less crime novels after his wife's death). Especially in the 1940s the North mysteries were quite well-received (New York Times mystery critic Anthony Boucher was a great fan).

The Norths make a gruesome discovery
in Mr. and Mrs. North Meet Murder
(aka The Norths Meet Murder)
In the first North mystery, The Norths Meet Murder (the publication year customarily given as 1940, though my paperback edition gives the first printing as December 1939), the Lockridges introduced not only the Norths, but the recurring character Lieutenant Weigand (known to his underlings on the force, like Detective Mullins, as "Loot"), who "doesn't seem like a policeman" to the Norths and their society friends (he's too much like them, don't you know).

The Norths start off their career as a mystery fiction couple in classic fashion, finding a man's naked, battered body in a bathtub in the empty top floor apartment of the Greenwich Village brownstone where they live. This discovery brings Weigand and Mullins into their lives. Soon Weigand, through some clever police work, identifies the corpse as one of the North's own social set! And the Norths are suspects!!

I often see the North mysteries described as "zany," but I did not find The Norths Meet Murder so. Much of the book is devoted to the investigations of Weigand, and these parts of the novel feel much more like a police procedural than a "madcap" mystery. The Norths pop in and out and they (well, mostly Pam) play an important part in the novel's denouement, but they don't behave especially zanily, in my view--though, to be sure, they drink a lot of cocktails and Pam displays a positive penchant for seeming non sequiturs!

I enjoyed the book, although I early on tagged the culprit, based merely on what you might call general mystery fiction principles. Still, there's a clever alibi problem and a pleasingly-portrayed NYC milieu; and I plan to read additional Lockridge tales in the future.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Dane Clark Crime Films, Part One: Without Honor (1949) and Blackout/Murder by Proxy (1954)

Dane Clark (1912-1998) is one of those actors that you, if you are, like the Passing Tramp, in middle age, have almost assuredly seen on television earlier in your life, even if you don't match the name with the face. I recall him playing an FBI agent in Season One of Angela Lansbury's beloved mystery series, Murder She Wrote, the "Watson" in that episode to Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher. I don't know why I remember this character, but I suppose I have to chalk it up to Clark's acting skills, having seen some of his other genre film work of late.  He's good!

Dane Clark was known in the 1940s as the "B-list John Garfield," but I don't believe this appellation does him justice (it's a bit like when the great Ida Lupino is dismissed as the "poor man's Bette Davis"). Dane Clark was his own man. Both John Garfield (born Jacob Julius Garfinkle in 1913) and Dane Clark (born Bernard Zanville in 1912) were Jews from New York City, but Clark came of much more comfortable circumstances than Garfield, graduating from Cornell and getting a law degree before ending up in acting (after stints in boxing, baseball, construction, sales and sculptor's modeling--he had found lawyers weren't doing to well in the Depression either).

the wheel turns
Dane Clark and Gail Russell in Moonrise (1948)
In 1941 Clark married the artist and sculptor Margot Yoder (a distant relative of my family) and the next year appeared in several films (uncredited): The Pride of the Yankees ("Fraternity Boy"); Wake Island ("Sparks"); and, most notably at The Passing Tramp's blog surely, Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key ("Henry Sloss").

By the end of World War II Clark was getting bigger roles, including that of the Bohemian artist in the Bette Davis identical twins melodrama A Stolen Life (1946); the escaped convict who has a desperate romance with Ida Lupino in Deep Valley (1947); and, in the Oscar-nominated film Moonrise (1948), the tormented Danny Hawkins, who is in love with gorgeous Gail Russell and has, most inconveniently, killed her fiancee (played, very briefly, by Lloyd Brides). Today Moonrise pops up on lists of greatest noir films though regrettably it's not available on DVD (you can see on it Amazon instant video, however).

If you look around you should be able to find on DVD some of Clark's work as a lead actor in late 1940s and 1950s crime films (when he really came into his own as an actor), including Without Honor (1949), Backfire (1950), Highly Dangerous (1950; screenplay by Eric Ambler), Gunman in the Streets (1950, with Simone Signoret), Never Trust a Gambler (1951), The Gambler and the Lady (1952), Blackout (1954; Murder by Proxy in UK), Paid to Kill (1954; Five Days in UK), Port of Hell (1954), The Toughest Man Alive (1955) and The Man Is Armed (1956).

I've recently seen two of the above films, Without Honor and Blackout.

Blackout, as I have discussed in an earlier post, is an English adaptation of Helen Nielsen's Chicago-set hard-boiled crime novel, Gold Coast Nocturne (1951).  Although transferring the setting from Chicago to London is slightly awkward, to be sure, overall I was really rather impressed with this film. It is quite faithful to the novel, even using some of the dialogue.

As the beleaguered hero, Casey Morrow, out to solve a murder he is suspected of having committed, Dane Clark is excellent, as are the two lead women, Belinda Lee (sexy blonde heiress Phyllis Brunner) and Eleanor Summerfield (wisecracking artist Maggie Doone).  A couple crucial supporting performances could have been stronger, but overall I would quite recommend this film.

Who can a guy trust?
Belinda Lee and Dane Clark in Blackout (1954)
Without Honor was directed by Irving Pichel and written by James Poe, a distinguished writer for radio and film (though Poe wrote the screenplays for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Summer and Smoke, Lilies of the Field and They Shoot Horses, Don't They? he won his sole Oscar for Around the World in Eighty Days).

For genre lovers Poe also is especially notable as a radio scriptwriter for classic series like Suspense and Escape (perhaps his best known adaptation is the brilliant nail-biter "Three Skeleton Key," starring Vincent Price).

Without Honor followed the Alfred Hitchcock film Rope into theaters by one year, and the influence on the latter film on the former seems clear, with Without Honor playing as a feminized, suburbanized version of the classic Hitchcock film.

love, sex, infidelity and murder--
what crime genre fan could ask for more?
Laraine Day stars as Jane Bandle, a San Fernando valley housewife whose dalliance with businessman Dennis Williams (Franchot Tone) has been uncovered by a private detective employed by her rat fink brother-in-law, Bill Bandle (Dane Clark), who is still angry that she once spurned his advances and has been eyeing his chance to exact revenge.

Williams has come to the Bandle house to inform Jane that with a detective on their tails it's all over between them--he won't divorce his wife as he had promised. A distraught Jane, who when Williams dropped in to lower the boom had been preparing shish kabob for her husband's dinner (d'oh!), grabs a skewer and hysterically threatens to commit suicide on the spot. Williams grapples with her and ends up getting stabbed in the chest.

After Williams collapses in the laundry room, a panic-stricken Jane shuts the door on him but finds that the worst is yet to come: her snake-in-the-grass brother-in-law has invited Williams' wife, Katherine (Agnes Moorehead), to come over the Bandle bungalow to discuss a certain matter of marital infidelity. Oh, yes, and Jane's husband, Fred (Bruce Bennett, aka former thirties film Tarzan Herman Brix) should be along any minute now too....

This film has gotten its share of criticism over the years, but I enjoyed it.  The performances are quite good, in my view.  Tone is his customarily sophisticated self, but it's Dane Clark who dominates the film, as a highly memorable etching in sleazeball venom. A rather censorious New York Times, which didn't like the film, allowed nevertheless that "Mr. Clark does such a thoroughly good job in developing the revengeful brother into a full grown monster that one can almost forgive and commiserate with Laraine Day, despite her guilt of marital indiscretion."

a smarmy Clark reminds Day of her wedding vows
(note the framed photo between Clark and Day)

Laraine Day mostly spends the film looking terrified, though she does this well.  Agnes Moorehead lends an interesting performance as a not entirely unsympathetic Beverly Hills matron. Bruce Bennett is convincing as Day's somewhat dim husband. Essentially a post-war kitchen sink women's melodrammer, Without Honor nevertheless also offers genre fans a pleasing repast of crime and suspense.

Blackout is available on a good quality DVD that includes subtitles (it's also available on Amazon instant video).  Without Honor is available on DVD as well, though the quality is poorer, with the pounding Max Steiner score coming through more strongly than the dialogue.