Monday, August 29, 2016

Russian Ripper: Child 44 (2015)

The 2015 film Child 44, based on the 2008 crime novel of the same name by Tom Rob Smith (the first installment in a highly successful book trilogy), was released in the US in the third week of April and closed a month later, having earned a little over 1.2 million dollars.  Worldwide it fared better, though not greatly so, making merely 11.7 million dollars.  Having a budget of 50 million, the film's less than 13 million in box office receipts guaranteed it the status of a cinematic bomb, seemingly validating the poor reviews the film received. (It scored only a 41 out of 100 on Metacritic.)

Yet Child 44 from dozens of user reviews averages a 6.5 of 10 on imdb, the international movie database, and a 3.8 of 5 on Amazon--admittedly hardly masterpiece level, but certainly better than the critical consensus.  Being a fan of the film's star, Tom Hardy, I decided to give it a try. 

Tom Hardy in Child 44

Tom Hardy has done his share of genre films in his still ascending film career: Inception (a heist film at its intricate Chinese puzzle box heart); Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (based on the classic John le Carre spy novel); Lawless (about Depression-era American bootleggers); The Dark Knight Rises (where he played arch-villain Bane, doubtlessly his most famous role worldwide); Locke (a suspense film of sorts, for which he won best actor awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Toronto Film Critics Association); The Drop (adapted from a Dennis Lehane short story and reviewed by me here); Mad Max Fury Road; and Legend (about an infamous and eccentric pair of British twin brother gangsters).  And that's not to mention his recurring role in the quirky British television crime series Peaky Blinders. Hardy received his first Oscar nomination this year for his role as Leo Dicaprio's nemesis in the much-lauded western epic The Revenant.

Joel Kinnaman and benevolent leader

Child 44 certainly has a stellar cast.  In addition to Hardy, there is the brilliant Gary Oldman (who starred with Hardy in Tinker and Legend), Noomi Rapace (Hardy's female co-star from The Drop and the star of the Swedish film adaptation of Stieg Larsson's mega-bestselling Millennium Trilogy), Joel Kinnaman (who just popped up in Suicide Squad), Paddy Considine, Vincent Cassel (a memorably loathsome Russian gangster in Eastern Promises and son of Jean-Pierre Cassel, the noted French actor who played the railway porter in the 1974 film version of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express) and Charles Dance (a great British veteran thespian who is all over the place right now, including very recently in the latest adaptation of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, in a role he seems to have been born to play).

don't talk to strangers

Like the novel, the film is loosely based on the real-life case of Andrei Romanovich Chikatilo, a Soviet Union serial killer who was executed in 1994 for the murders of over fifty women and children during an appalling dozen year slaying spree that took place between 1978 and 1990.  (A much more faithful 1995 television film, Citizen X, also was based on these events).

Author Tom Rob Smith took the kernel of the story of the Chikatilo murders and moved them from the Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras back to the Stalin era.  (The murderer Chikatilo was born in 1936 and experienced great hardship as a child in the famine and war plagued then Soviet Republic of Ukraine.)  Much lauded and a big seller, Smith's novel quickly drew interest from filmmakers, including Ridley Scott, but it took seven years for a film to come together, and then unsuccessfully so, at least in the eyes of most critics.  Why the critical disdain for the film version of Child 44, when the novel was so well-received?

life under watchful eyes

Most of the critical reviews derided the film as an insufficiently thrilling thriller. (Additionally the film was never shown in Russia and several former Soviet republics, on account of its having been deemed excessively negative in its depiction of the Stalin-era USSR.)  I think there is some justification to this charge of insufficient thrills, though I also believe that the film, taken on its own terms, has considerable merit.

Briefly, Child 44 tells the story of the travails of Leo Demidov (Hardy) and his wife Raisa (Rapace) as Leo with Raisa's help struggles to investigate a series of murders of young boys during the waning days of the Stalin regime.  Leo, who was orphaned during the Ukrainian famine and as a soldier became a propaganda hero of the Second World War (he was photographed planting the Soviet flag atop the Reichstag), is a captain in the MGB (Ministry of State Security), tasked with hunting down enemies of the state, but in the manner of Tom Hardy characters, he is morally conflicted, as he sees the horrific abuses and moral crimes committed in the name of the state (in some of which he is complicit).  In the case of the child murders, Leo's superiors do not accept that such western decadence is possible in the USSR, so his attempt to get at the truth is stymied.

Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace

Eventually Leo's and Raisa's fortunes take a drastic downward turn, as Raisa, a sensitive schoolteacher, is denounced as a subversive and the couple, Leo standing by her, finds themselves exiled to a remote city, Volsk, run by General Nesterov (Gary Oldman).  But the string of brutual child murders follows Leo to Volsk and he is left trying to solve them while he himself struggles to survive.

I think where Child 44 succeeds well is in its portrayal of life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Some Russian authorities were vocally offended by the film, but then these seem to be the sort that naturally would be.  To be sure, some western critics, not special pleaders, criticized the film for being grey and drab; but, I ask you, just what was life like then for a lot of people?  One would not expect life in Nazi Germany to be portrayed as jolly, why life under Stalin? Despite criticism of the film's use of Russian accents by its largely non-Russian cast, the performances are excellent, especially Hardy's and Rapace's, with Paddy Considine also being quite memorable in an underwritten part. (Many of the parts feel underwritten, including Oldman's, sadly.)

General Nesterov (Gary Oldman) lays down the law

As a mystery thriller the film does disappoint somewhat, in that the murder investigation feel too peripheral to the film.  Regrettably, I have not read the book, but I imagine it must have been more successfully integrated.  In the middle of the film, the identity of the killer is offhandedly revealed, so people expecting intriguing mystery will be disappointed. But as a compelling picture of a time and place with strong acting, Child 44 deserves recommendation in my view. Sadly, the film ends leaving a clear expectation of a sequel, one we likely will never get now.  I couldn't help thinking what splendid characters Leo and Raisa would have made for a television mystery series, a sort of Soviet Wallander.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Magnum of Mystery Tales: The Invisible Bullet (2016), by Max Rittenberg

Magnum pursued the monologue to which the circle was listening in awed silence: "There was only one contingency they failed to guard against."

"And that was--"

"Myself," answered the scientist, with entire complacency.


                                                                                      "Red Herrings," Max Rittenberg

In 2014 genre fiction expert Mike Ashley (among many additional things editor of the popular Mammoth Book short story anthologies) contributed a piece, "The Strange Case of Max Rittenberg," to Mysteries Unlocked, a collection of essays I edited that were written in honor of Douglas G. Greene, biographer of John Dickson Carr and owner of the mystery short fiction imprint Crippen & Landru.

I had never heard of Max Rittenberg (1880-1963) and I was much interested to learn about him in Mike's essay.  As Mike explained in the essay, Rittenberg (who was born Max Mark Lion Rittenberg in Sydney, Australia but migrated with his family to England when he was a child) in a creative burst between 1911 and 1915 published a flurry of mystery short stories with two series sleuths: Dr. Xavier Wycherley, a psychologist and psychic detective, and Professor Magnum, a chemist and scientific consultant.

 In 1913 the Dr. Wycherley tales were collected in book form in The Mind-Reader, and they have since been reprinted by Coachwhip.  However the Professor Magnum stories, a bountiful eighteen in number, had never been collected in book form until now, Coachwhip having published them in a well-designed volume with a new introduction by Mike Ashley: The Invisible Bullet & Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant.  (All the artwork from the original serial publication of the tales is included.)

In his introduction Mike notes that despite the supremacy of Sherlock Holmes in crime fiction of the day, "it was not until R. Austin Freeman brought Dr. John Thorndyke centre stage in The Red Thumb Mark, published at the end of November 1907, that the scientific detective really took off." ("....Holmes does not use the results of his experimentation quite as much as you'd expect," observes Ashley, with some justification in my view.)

With the landmark "The Blue Sequin," published in the United Kingdom in Pearson's Magazine in December 1908, Freeman, a doctor by profession, launched a long line of classic Thorndyke short stories, all with true scientific detection.

In the United States, where Dr. Thorndyke first appeared in magazine form in May 1910, Edwin Balmer and William B. MacHarg a year earlier, in May 1909, introduced Luther Trant, a "psychological detective" who "used scientific instruments to measure the reactions of people to a series of set questions and from that deduced the guilty party," while Arthur B. Reeve's mystery-solving Professor Craig Kennedy debuted in print in December 1910.

"Within a little over three years," note Ashley, "the British and American reading public became acquainted with the full gamut of scientific and forensic analysis though Dr. Thorndyke, Luther Trant and Craig Kennedy."  Max Rittenberg's Dr. Wycherley and Professor Magnum soon joined this distinguished company.

Magnum--in the tales he goes by his surname alone--first appeared in print in "The Mystery of the Sevenoaks Tunnel" in October 1913.  Physically Magnum is, Ashley notes, "not unlike Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger, with bushy red eyebrows, an unkempt beard, an explosive temper, and exuding self-importance" (Challenger had debuted the previous year in the classic sci-fi novel The Lost World).  Throughout the cycle of tales Magnum is aided by an intensely shy Welshman, Ivor Meredith, a brilliant chemical analyst who is much less sure of himself outside the laboratory.  There are a couple additional semi-recurring characters: a young attorney named Stacey and Detective-Inspector Callaghan of Scotland Yard.


As Mike Ashley notes, the Magnum short stories include a number of intriguing "impossible" situations.  "The Mystery of the Sevenoaks Tunnel" is a railway mystery that concerns the question of how a man, evidently alone in a second-class railway compartment, came to take a fatal tumble out of the compartment as the train passed through the Sevenoaks tunnel.  In "The Mystery of the Vanishing Gold," "six large ingots of gold, conveyed across the capital, reach their destination considerably lighter than when they started," and Magnum is called in by the baffled authorities to discovered how the precious metal went missing.


In "The Invisible Bullet," for which the book is named, "a man is shot dead with two bullets in a gymnasium, with a policeman on the scene within seconds, but no perpetrator visible, no means of escape and no sign of a second bullet." (A floor plan is included.)  In "The Empty Flask" a man appears to have been slain by some toxic substance, but police investigators can find no evidence as to what this hypothetical toxic substance was or how it might have been administered.  In "Red Herrings" Britain's home secretary is mysteriously snatched "in broad daylight on a busy London street without anyone noticing."  In "The Three Henry Clarks," a trio of men, all of them named Henry Clark, "die within hours of each other, apparently poisoned," but the matter of means and motive stumps the police.


These are all fine detective tales.  Another favorite of mine from this collection is "The Queer Case of the Cyanogen Poisoning," in which Magnum investigates an apparent mass poisoning in the household of a wealthy family.  One of the later tales, "The Secret of the Tower House," is somewhat similar to the earlier story, but it has an entirely different, and striking, solution, as does "Cleansing Fire."

Two cases veer more toward pulp thriller melodrama: "The Bond Street Poisoning Bureau," about a sinister occultist of indeterminate origin, and "The Secret Analysis," which sees Ivor Meredith kidnapped and cruelly threatened with execution in attempt to extort valuable information from Magnum.  The metaphorically-titled "The Rough Fist of Reason" pits the skeptical Magnum against a (sham?) spiritualist, a favorite stock figure in crime fiction.

Max Rittenberg
Magnum is presented with some unobtrusive humor by the author, who gently mocks the consultant's vanity and (as I see it) insularity and chauvinism, while never taking away from his impressive accomplishments as an investigator.

There are bits of interesting social observation here and there, concerning new technology and even the "new" woman.  For example, Magnum's client in the entertaining "Rough Fist of Reason" is a "modern young woman, one of those bright-hard college girls who are not abashed by any authoritativeness on the part of man."  Naturally, Magnum takes umbrage at this presumption!

In his own life Rittenberg was a keen-minded and worldly man, the son of a Russian-Jewish merchant and an Australian-born woman of German-Jewish ancestry whose father had made a fortune in the Victorian gold rush.  After a peripatetic adolescence Max became an expert in business organization and the science reporter for newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe's Daily Mail

He married at the age of 38 in 1918, founded a noted advertising and public relations firm, Max Rittenberg & Partners, in 1920, and had two children, who were born in 1920 and 1924.  With so much to do on his hands, he left fiction writing behind him, but thanks to Mike Ashley and Coachwhip, Max Rittenberg's fine legacy of crime fiction has been revived for a modern readership.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Acedia: The Noonday Devil (1951), by Ursula Curtiss

Thou shalt not be afraid...Of the arrow that flieth in the day, of the business that walketh about in the dark, of invasion, or of the noonday devil.

                                                                                                            --Psalm 91:6

Tradition calls acedia the "noonday devil," for like a demon that attacks in the light of the day, it comes when we least expect it, and it is difficult for its victim to recognize it....acedia manifests itself as a temptation for a monk to depart his cell.  This temptation if often worst around midday....

                             --Thomas Van, "Recognizing the Noonday Devil," catholicculture.org


The Noonday Devil, Ursula Curtiss' third crime novel, received much praise when it was published in 1951; and it was singled out for commendation over two decades later by British crime writer and critic Julian Symons in his genre survey Bloody Murder as a fine example of what he dubbed the "women's [crime] novel." 

That of Curtiss' "women's" novels Symons selected the only one (of which I'm aware) with a male protagonist seems telling, but the fact that Symons mentioned Curtiss at all, given his dismissal of a number of women suspense authors in Bloody Murder, suggests the esteem with which the crime writer was once held in the UK as well as the US.

When Ursula Curtiss published The Noonday Devil she had been married for four years. She was Ursula Reilly--daughter, as readers of this blog of course will know (or may well have known already), of crime writer Helen Reilly--when in 1947 she wed John Paul Curtiss, Jr., son of a prominent advertising executive.

 Having prepped at Choate, John graduated from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University and worked, before the Second World War broke out, for radio producer and writer Doug Storer.

John was serving as a lieutenant colonel in the U. S. Army field artillery in the Philippines when Japanese forces attacked in January 1942, not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Several months later the beleaguered soldiers of the USAFFE (United States Army Forces in the Far East) surrendered to Japan.

The Japanese transfer of American and Filipino soldiers, accomplished by means of a brutal sixty-mile trek on foot known as the Bataan Death March, resulted in the deaths of thousands of prisoners. 

John Curtiss survived not only the Bataan Death March but three and half years in Japanese prisons. His wartime experiences clearly informed his wife's third crime novel, where the protagonist, Andrew Sentry, investigates the strange circumstances of his brother Nick's death six years earlier at a Japanese prison in the Philippines. 

Reminiscent of John Curtiss, Nick Sentry in The Noonday Devil was a captain in the field artillery, but he was executed for trying to escape from his confinement.  What Nick's brother, Andrew, learns to his shock one rainy night in a New York bar (where he has stopped for a quick bourbon old-fashioned) is that Nick's execution may have been engineered by another American prisoner,  a mysterious individual named Sands, about whom Nick may have known a deadly secret.  Andrew resolves to get to the truth, even in the face of Nick's seemingly faithless former fiancee, Sarah Devaney.


The Noonday Devil divides neatly into halves, the first half rather resembling a noir tale by Cornell Woolrich (I was particularly reminded of Phantom Lady), with a driven protagonist grimly pursuing elusive answers and gradually realizing that he is facing a remorseless unseen enemy, a player on the other side, determined to check him at every point, even if that means resorting to murder. 

In the second half of the novel shifts in setting to a small New England town and takes on resemblance to more typical Fifties "domestic suspense" novels (what Julian Symons called women's novels).  Perhaps this second half is a little disappointing, but if so only because the first half raises such high and fearful expectations. (The ending comes off as a bit pat, I think.)  But nevertheless Devil is a fine Fifties crime novel, one that made amply clear at the time that Ursula Curtiss already had become a master of suspense writing.  Recommended.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Death Drills Down: Death in the Dentist's Chair (1932), by Molly Thynne

Molly Thynne's Death in the Dentist's Chair (1932) anticipated Agatha Christie's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940), which memorably has Hercule Poirot walk into a baffling murder problem at the dentist's office, by eight years.  Aside from these two "dentist mysteries" I know of one other, of much more recent vintage: M. C. Beaton's Death of a Dentist (1997), which I have yet to read. 


I think the idea of murder at the dentist's office is a natural notion for a mystery writer, because for a lot of us this is a fearful locale to start with, right?  Christie's American publishers evidently found the Crime Queen's nursery rhyme title unenticing, at various times retitling the novel The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death, though neither title really takes advantage of the inspired initial setting of the dentist's office.

Molly Thynne's book certainly does, opening quite gruesomely with London dentist Humphrey Davenport just having done his work on little Mr. Cattistock:

"All the upper incisors," he assented cheerfully, "eight altogether.  They came out beautifully.  Like to see them?"

As poorly as poor Mr. Cattistock feels after Davenport's deed, the dentist's next patient, one Mrs. Miller, comes out much worse: she is found dead in the dentist's chair, her throat viciously cut.  The dentist claims that after briefly leaving his (living) patent he found the door locked upon his return (locked room enthusiasts don't get excited; the room has an unfastened window), but is he telling the truth?

Or, on the other hand, could any of the patients in the office at the time--little Mr. Cattistock, lovely Mrs. Vallon or Sir Richard Pomfrey--have had a hand in the affair?  Or was the murder an outside job?

Thynne's amateur sleuth, Greek chess enthusiast Dr. Constantine, providentially was also a patient at the office that day, and he is soon aiding the Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Arkwright, tasked with investigating the affair. Dr. Constantine, you will recall, the previous winter helped Arkwright solve that Christmastime criminal imbroglio at the country inn the Noah's Ark (chronicled in The Crime at the Noah's Ark, 1931) and the two men have since become fast friends, don't you know.

Death in the Dentist's Chair offers vintage mystery fans a pleasingly intricate murder problem that keeps those little grey cells clicking and I enjoyed it immensely.

Contemporary crime fiction reviewer Charles Williams was a fan of the Dr. Constantine mysteries too, declaring that the amateur sleuth "deserves to be known with the Frenches and the Fortunes" (referencing Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French and H. C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune).

It's just too bad that only three of his cases ever were recorded (the final Dr. Constantine mystery is He Dies and Makes No Sign, 1933), but happily all three soon will be back in print.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Thynne Is In! The Dean Street Press Molly Thynne Mystery Reissues


Molly Thynne's mother was a niece of
James McNeil Whistler, painter of
Whistler's Mother

As I reported here a few months ago, Dean Street Press is reprinting all of the Golden Age detective novels by English mystery writer Molly Thynne.  They will be out in September, both in paper and electronic form. 

Mary Harriet Thynne (1881-1950) , who authored a half-dozen detective novels between 1928 and 1933, had a distinguished family lineage, being not only a great-granddaughter of Thomas Thynne, 2nd Marquess of Bath, but a great-niece of American artist James Whistler, creator of the enduringly evocative "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1" (popularly known as "Whistler's Mother").

Longleat, the family seat of the marquesses of Bath, is one of the most famous stately homes in England, and the current marquess, Alexander Thynn (he dropped the "e" from his surname to make its pronunciation--thin"--clearer), is one of the UK's most colorful aristocratic eccentrics.  His father, Henry Thynne, first opened Longleat to the public in the late 1940s, an action necessitated by the imposition of crushing postwar death duties (a subject to which English crime writer Henry Wade, a landed baronet, devoted a crime novel, Too Soon to Die, to denouncing).  


In 1966 Henry Thynne opened a safari park at Longleat, an action which probably inspired the classic 1969 crime novel A Pride of Heroes (in the US, The Old English Peep Show), by the late author Peter Dickinson (1927-2015).  For his part Alexander Thynn, an artist and mural painter, designed the hedge mazes which dot the estate. (Golden Age crime writer J. J. Connington used a hedge maze at a country estate as a bravura murder setting in his 1927 detective novel Murder in the Maze.)


Molly Thynne grew up not at Longleat, however, but in artistic circles in London.  Her father was Assistant Solicitor to His Majesty's Customs, but her mother, Anne "Annie" Harriet Haden, was not only Whistler's niece but a daughter of the English etcher Sir Frances Seymour Haden, at whose studio young Molly spent much of her time.  There she met such luminaries as Rudyard Kipling and Henry James.

Molly Thynne published her first novel, The Uncertain Glory, in 1914, when she was 33.  The novel concerned, appropriately enough, the love affairs of a young artist in London and Munich. Thynne's great-uncle Whistler had had a violent falling out with her grandfather Haden over what the elder man viewed as Whistler's dissolute lifestyle. 

Thynne's short-lived mystery writing career commenced in 1928, with the publication of The Red Dwarf (in the US, The Draycott Murder Mystery) and terminated but five years later with the appearance of her sixth detective novel, He Dies and Makes No Sign, one of the rarest of Golden Age mysteries.

Both The Draycott Murder Mystery (the title under which DSP is reissuing Thynne's first mystery) and The Murder on the Enriqueta, Thynne's second mystery, are murder affairs implicating England's well-off and well-born, the latter being particularly enjoyable to me on account of its bold plot (see my review here.)  Thynne's third detective novel, The Case of Sir Adam Braid, is a well-plotted puzzler about the death of an artist, again drawing on Thynne's family background. 

With her final three detective novels, Thynne employed as sleuths an enjoyable detective duo, the chess-playing Greek intellectual Dr. Constantine and his attendant Scotland Yard policeman, Inspector Arkwright.  The two men appeared first in The Crime at the Noah's Ark, a Christmas mystery set at a classic "enclosed location," a rambling, snowbound country inn.

After this auspicious debut, the crime-fighting duo went on to solve dastardly murders in Death in the Dentist's Chair (DSP's slightly altered title for the reissue), a mystery which anticipated Agatha Christie's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe in its used of a dentist's office as the setting for its first murder, and He Dies and Makes No Sign. The title of the latter novel draws on this exchange from Shakespeare's history play Henry VI, part 2:

King Henry IV: He dies, and makes no sign; O God, forgive him!

Earl of Warwick: So bad a death argues a monstrous life.

King Henry IV: Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all.

Molly Thynne, a Catholic who proudly dubbed herself a "spinster" at the age of 24, never married and later in life resided at Crewys House in Bovey Tracey, Devon, where she passed away in 1950 at the age of 68, seventeen years after the publication of her last detective novel.

I'll have more to say about the two later Thynne mysteries soon.  I'm most pleased to have the chance to welcome Molly Thynne to the burgeoning ranks of rediscovered Golden Age crime writers.
 



Thursday, August 4, 2016

Mid-Century Murder: Strangle Hold (1951), by Mary McMullen

Strangle Hold, the debut crime novel by Mary McMullen, was much praised upon its publication in 1951.  Frances Lockridge, coauthor of the Mr. and Mrs. North mysteries, enthusiastically blurbed the book, lauding not only its "absorbing suspense" but its depiction of "New York's advertising world...particularly the advertising world in which women play so large a part" and concluding that "Strangle Hold is a book I think every woman who has ever worked in an office will love, whether she's a mystery fan or not."

In his review of the novel influential mystery critic Anthony Boucher declared that Strangle Hold "is surprisingly successful--as a novel, if not as a detective story."

Mary McMullen
Boucher contrasted McMullen's handling of the subject of "murder in an adverting agency" with that of Dorothy L. Sayers (Murder Must Advertise) and Julian Symons (The Thirty-First of February), declaring that while the realism of Sayers' and Symons' books had been compromised by a "faint element of parody and exaggeration," McMullen to her credit had played it "dead straight."  The result made McMullen's novel "even more chilling than those of her predecessors." Noting that McMullen was the "daughter of one well-established mystery writer and sister of another," Boucher pronounced that she "seems to be (not that I want to start a Sunday breakfast row) the brightest talent yet in the family.

At the Mystery Writers of America gathering the next year McMullen was awarded the Edgar for best debut crime novel, not altogether surprisingly given Boucher's influence with that organization.  Oddly McMullen did not publish another crime novel for 23 years, when The Doom Campaign appeared in 1974. (I'll be looking at McMullen's later books later this month.)

I agree with Frances Lockridge and Anthony Boucher that the greatest strength of Strangle Hold is found its American advertising world setting, particularly in the depiction of the place of women within it at the middle of the 20th century.  Lockridge's declaration that the novel would appeal to women whether they are mystery fans or not may well be bone-chilling words to traditionalist mystery fans, but there's the ring of truth to those words. 

The plot, concerning the strangulation murder of a woman at Wade and Wallingford, a prominent New York advertising agency (she's done in with a tweed tie, a sample from one of the advertising firm's clients), is solid and the police investigation credible, but there are no remarkable feats of detection or stunning twists.

However, throughout the novel the narrative is smooth and engrossing and the setting fascinating.  As I've indicated I was especially intrigued by the novel's depiction of gender roles in the workplace.  Let me quote a passage from the novel, which is told primarily though the perceptions of Eve Fitzsimmons, who has just come to work for Wade and Wallingford:

She had a special mental file for art directors who thought women had no place in advertising.  These unamiable creatures lumped women--all women-- under Woman, and assigned to the most sensible female all the frivolity and nonsense they connected with the sex in general.  This type of art director regarded the most well-founded suggestion or request as "just typical of a woman" and listened with an air of ironical patience to anything the enemy had to say.


McMullen has a knack for depicting both character and place, and one really feels one knows these ad execs and their offices, with their plush carpeting and pickled oak furniture, and their endless rounds of cigarette smoking!

At one point Eve gets what surely is a candidate for Worst Marriage Proposal in a Mystery Novel and it's interesting to compare her response to it with that of a character in Margery Allingham's The Fashion in Shrouds (1938), a crime novel about women in the fashion industry in Thirties England.

Mary McMullen herself studied at art school and worked on a small-town newspaper and in a war plant before getting a job at Macy's, where she became a divisional advertising manager.  She got her younger, mystery-writing sister, Ursula Curtiss, a job there too--more about that soon!

Friday, July 29, 2016

Classic Crime, Classic Parodies

Classic crime fiction, both in its "cozy" British and American hard-boiled versions, for decades has exercised such a hold over the popular imagination that it has inspired many modern parodies.  Here are two favorites of mine.

This first, which I believe originally aired as a sketch on Monty Python's Flying Circus (a series which was broadcast by the BBC between 1969 and 1974), sees the great comedy troupe taking on classic British country house mystery.  People have labeled this an "Agatha Christie sketch," but in fact the obsession all the characters have with railway timetables suggests that the author being parodied surely must be a popular Agatha Christie crime writer contemporary, Freeman Wills Crofts, undisputed king of the railway timetable and alibi mystery.  Can you beat Inspector Davis in spotting the dastard who shot Sir Horace?


Clearly influenced by Monty Python, Canada's The Kids in the Hall, had a television sketch comedy series which originally aired in Canada and the United States between 1989 and 1995.  "Detective Peter Prince" is a short film which offers a decidedly queer take on the memorable fictional world of Raymond Chandler, as a pacifier-sucking shamus is hired by distraught wealthy matron Mrs. Gold to look into the disappearance of "Kitty."  In Mrs. Gold's odd mansion Prince encounters stiff-lipped British butler Baltimore and sexy cabana boy Carlos, but will he ever discover what happened to Kitty?  Warning: there's a bit of blue language at the climax!

the shocking climax of Detective Peter Prince

This six-minute film is available here on YouTube and all of the Kids in the Hall television seasons (including Season 4, where this film debuted) are available on DVD. I loved this series when it first aired and am very pleased that it is out on DVD.  I just wish these clever lads had done more mystery parodies!