Friday, February 27, 2015

The Bells and the Bees: Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov Discuss Detective Fiction

American literary critic and author Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) famously (infamously to many) voiced his disdain for detective fiction in a couple New Yorker essays, "Why Do People Read Detective Stories?" and "Who Care Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?"  In these memorably splenetic pieces Wilson essentially dismissed detective fiction fans as desperate junk-lit addicts who should have been embarrassed with themselves for spending time scarfing such trash. Naturally enough, this attitude did not endear the outspoken critic to detective fiction fans, and many wrote him letters telling him so.

Are we having fun yet?
Edmund Wilson, aka "Bunny" (derived from plum bun)
flayer of detective, supernatural and fantasy fiction

There were, however, a few people who wrote Wilson agreeable letters on the matter. One of these supportive individuals was the emigre Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977). The same month that Edmund Wilson's first essay on detective fiction appeared in the New Yorker, Nabokov, who in 1940 had begun what was to be a correspondence of three decades with Wilson, wrote his friend:

I liked very much your article on detective stories. Of course, Agatha is unreadable--but Sayers, whom you do not mention, writes well.  Try Crimes Advertises [Murder Must Advertise].  Your attitude to detective writing is curiously like my attitude towards Soviet literature, so that you are on the whole absolutely right.

Nabokov then proceeded to quote to "Bunny" (Edmund Wilson's rather unexpected nickname) excerpts of poor writing from tales collected in Eugene Thwing's World's Best 100 Detective Stories (1929). He predicted they would give the sensitive and superior Wilson "slight nausea."

Valdimir Nabokov praised H. F. Heard's
A Taste for Honey as "very nicely written"--
"though the entomological part is of course all wrong"

Unlike Wilson, Nabokov himself in fact had a certain partiality toward detective fiction (the well-written ones, of course), as his favorable reference to Dorothy L. Sayers suggests. The previous year, he wrote Wilson that after some excruciating dental surgery

I was lying on my bed groaning...yearning for a good detective story--and at that very moment the Taste for Honey sailed in...Mary [McCarthy, Wilson's then wife, like him a prominent literary critic and author] was right, I enjoyed it hugely--though the entomological part is of course all wrong (in one passage he [the author, H. F. Heard] confuses the Purple Emperor, a butterfly, with the Emperor moth).  But it is very nicely written.  Did Mary see the point of the detective's name at the very end?  I did.

Nabokov may have liked H. F. Heard's beekeeper mystery, still in print today, yet that same year he complained that he "did not think much of" John Dickson Carr's The Judas Window, which Mary McCarthy had read.  The way in which the murder was accomplished he deemed droll after a fashion but unconvincing, and he admonished McCarthy, "you ought to have found something better."

Mary McCarthy
enjoyed detective fiction, no matter what her
persnickety plum bun husband had to say about it
(she panned Sayers' Gaudy Night, however)

For his part Wilson admitted in a 1944 letter to Nabokov that "I have been getting dozens of letters from [detective fiction] addicts protesting against my article and only three so far approving it." Wilson's 1945 follow-up essay in the New Yorker, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?", did tackle the fiction of Dorothy L. Sayers, specifically her bell ringer mystery The Nine Tailors; but Wilson, in contrast with Nabokov, was wholly dismissive of the highest-browed Crime Queen:

I had often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well, and I felt that my correspondents [concerning his first essay] had been playing her as their literary ace. But, really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective story writers and she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level.  In any serious department of fiction, her writing would appear not to have any distinction at all.  

Of The Nine Tailors Wilson declared damningly that he found it "one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field."  He likened the beloved mystery novel to "an encyclopedia article on campanology."

At least Sayers' fans have the satisfaction of knowing that Vladimir Nabokov was an admirer of Sayers' writing (though not Christie's)--in French translation, anyway!

Note: Letter quotations in this piece are drawn from Simon Karlinsky, ed., Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971 (rev. ed., 2001).

Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!

A Life of Crime: Sinclair Gluck (1887-1956)

the author of mellodrammers
strikes a most dignified pose
With so much of American Golden Age crime fiction the focus in genre studies is on hard-boiled and noir, with little attention given to what might be termed "traditional" detective novels and thrillers. Those, it seems, are the province of England.

Although some of the work of the between-the-wars genre author Sinclair Gluck was influenced by Dashiell Hammett and other "tough" crime writers, much of Gluck's mystery fiction resembles the work of the more fanciful English thriller writer Edgar Wallace

In her "In the Library" column for the San Jose News, San Jose, California City Librarian Edith Daley (1874-1948) (see here and here for photos of Mrs. Daley) highly praised Gluck's novel The Man Who Never Blundered (1929). 

Under the byline Sheer Melodrama, But Very Exciting a most enthusiastic review followed:

If you want to forget, completely, that bothersome business deal or the troublesome housekeeping, just make yourself comfortable in the old easy chair, adjust the light and open to chapter one....Sheer melodrama--should be spelled "mellodrammer"!  But no end of excitement--cumulative excitement, with thrill following thrill, clear to the end of the last page.  It didn't happen, of course not.  And it just never could happen.  And it isn't literature--not even a forty-second cousin to literature, the kind of literature that William Dean Howells would have tipped his hat to on a busy street corner, with everybody on the old hotel porch looking on.  But, all the same, once in a blue moon, we need to be jostled out of the work-a-day rut into complete forgetfulness of US and our small concerns.  You'll smile at the book while you read it--but just try putting it down unfinished. It's by Sinclair Gluck.

As Daley's delightful review indicates, we are far from mean streets realism in the typical Sincalir Gluck "mellodrammer," but these sorts of thrillers were quite popular in the 1920s and into the 1930s, both in the UK and the US (and, indeed, around the world).  Gluck also wrote at least a couple of books that were more in the nature of actual detective novels: The Last Trap, which was filmed in 1935 as The Dark Hour (see Scott Ratner's recent posting here), and Death Comes to Dinner (The Shadow in the House).  

Gluck also was a prolific writer for the pulps, with works by him appearing in, for example, Argosy, Detective Fiction Weekly, even Black Mask.  At least half of his published novels, including The Man Who Never Blundered, were originally serialized in pulps.

Sinclair Gluck was born Jasper Sinclair Gluck in Buffalo, New York in 1887, the son of James Fraser Gluck (1852-1897), a prominent lawyer, and Effie Dunreath Tyler, the daughter of a distinguished  Congregational minister, Charles Mellen Tyler (1832-1918). Gluck's lawyer father graduated in 1874 from Cornell University, where he was president of his class and received the school's highest undergraduate honor, the Woodford Prize for oratory.  

James Gluck had a great interest in books and amassed a large collection of original literary manuscripts, including Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, which he donated to the Buffalo Library. The matter of the Huckleberry Finn manuscript made national news in the early 1990s, when the first half of it, long thought lost, was discovered by one of Sinclair Gluck's daughters in an attic trunk in Los Angeles, where Gluck settled in the 1910s.  It was thought that James Gluck borrowed the first half of the manuscript and forgot to return it. The elder Gluck died at the age of 45, in 1897, when Sinclair was but ten years old.

Sincalir Gluck's sister, Margel Gluck, was a violinist who studied at the Prague Conservatory with famed teacher Otakar Sevcik and later in St. Petersburg with Leopold Auer. She made a number of acclaimed American and European performance tours, including one where she was accompanist to the great operatic soprano Lusia Tetrazzini.

Sinclair Gluck was educated in New York and London, at Manlius Military Academy and the University of London.  He himself never attended Cornell University, but he had strong connections to the school, for not only did his father graduate from Cornell, but his maternal grandfather, the Congregational minister, was a Professor of Christian Ethics there and his wife, Nancy Lee (1904-2003), whom he married in 1925, was a daughter of Duncan Campbell Lee, a Cornell oratory professor, crusading newspaper owner and lawyer who later moved to London (Nancy Lee grew up in a house in Highgate).

Gluck's mother married again, to London literary agent James Hughes Massie, of Curtis Brown and Massie and later Hughes Massie and Company. After receiving his education at the University of London, Gluck returned to the United States.

Before the US entry into the Great War, Gluck published, as Melrod Danning (quite a moniker), several novelizations of silent films, including a Mary Pickford vehicle, The Foundling. After war service with the British Army in Mesopotamia and later on the Western Front, he edited the automobile trade magazine The Commercial Vehicle, before turning to the writing of crime fiction in 1922. And once he started he didn't stop for two decades. Between 1922 and 1941, Gluck by my count published 18 thrillers and detective novels, which are listed below.  I plan to review a few of these in the weeks to come, starting with The Last Trap, his one book adapted to film.

Crime Novels by Sinclair Gluck
The House of the Missing 1922
The White Streak 1924
Thieves Honor 1924
The Green Blot 1925
The Dragon in Harness 1926
The Four Winds 1926
The Deeper Scar 1927
The Last Trap 1928
The Man Who Never Blundered 1928
Death Comes to Dinner (The Shadow in the House) 1929
The Blind Fury 1930
The Wildcat 1931
Red Emeralds 1932
Minus X 1933
Sea Shroud 1934
The Great London Mystery 1936
A Delicate Case of Murder 1937
Come and Kill Me 1941

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Guest Post from The Strolling Player: Twelve Favorite Film Adaptations of Golden Age Detective Novels

The Passing Tramp is proud to introduce to you Scott Ratner, known here as The Strolling Player, author of the Agatha Christie-inspired play Kill a Better Mousetrap (click the link to see the impressive celebrity endorsements from Golden Age Hollywood), with an interesting piece on his dozen favorite film adaptations of Golden Age detective novels. I have blogged every so often about crime and mystery films (including films mentioned below), but I most definitely bow to our Strolling Player's knowledge of Golden Age crime cinema. And now over to Scott Ratner and his list, with some illustrations and captions by me, followed by some comments from me. Scott and I would love to hear the opinions from readers of this blog as well. What do you think?

1) AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945--based on the novel by Agatha Christie)

Yes, it's a total Hollywoodization, but a brilliantly executed one, vastly entertaining, and with a great deal of intelligence employed in its elements of plot deception. So until a truly faithful (and still entertaining) version comes along--and no, the Russian version doesn't really qualify on either of those counts.…

2) GREEN FOR DANGER (1946--based on the novel by Christianna Brand)

In many respects this film is superior to the very fine source novel (though it does leave out a few of my favorite clues). Make sure to see the Criterion version--it makes all the difference. Incidentally, a quickie adaptation of Christiana Brand's first novel Death in High Heels was released the following year (and can be found on video), but it's not very good.

3) THE KENNEL MURDER CASE (1933--based on the novel by S. S. Van Dine)

This one is all it's cracked up to be, in my opinion. Michael Curtiz perfectly captures the brisk world of the American Golden Age Detective novel. William Powell may not be as smug and insufferable as the Philo Vance of the novels--but he's so damn cool to watch!

4) DEATH ON THE NILE (1978--based on the novel by Agatha Christie)

My favorite of the more recent big screen Christie adaptations (well, 37 years ago now). I think Anthony Shaffer did a brilliant job of simplifying Christie's complex plot, keeping the core stuff, and jettisoning the least necessary. Peter Ustinov is not Dame Agatha's Poirot, but he's an amusing presence, and I much prefer his portrayal to Albert Finney's weird, stiff disguise work (see the film Murder on the Orient Express, 1974).

5) THE VERDICT (1946--based on Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery)

Yes, I'm stretching the chronological boundaries of the Golden Age, but Israel Zangwill's novel was undoubtedly a key template for many subsequent Golden Age puzzle plots (it's arguably the first to employ its particular impossible crime solution). Don Seigel, in his feature directorial debut, actually improves upon Zangwill's plot (with the help of his screenwriters, of course). And the starring duo of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre is, as always, wonderful to watch.

6) LOVE LETTERS OF A STAR (1936--based on Rufus King's The Case of the Constant God) 

A very difficult film to find, unfortunately--I was lucky enough to see it at last year's Cinecon. A faithful and exciting adaptation of Rufus King's novel. There was an actual gasp from the crowd at the sudden revelation of the culprit--followed by a brief, welcome explanation of the detective's deductive process.

still from Love Letters of a Star

7) THE NIGHT CLUB LADY (1932--based on Anthony Abbot's About the Murder of the Night Club Lady)

An excellent adaptation of Abbott's novel, capturing its very Philo Vance-ish metropolitan atmosphere, featuring a fine performance by Adolphe Menjou as sleuth Thatcher Colt, and also one of the truly great, "I did it and I'm glad! Glad! Glad!!!" speeches of cinema history.

8) THE DARK HOUR (1936--based on Sinclair Gluck's "The Last Trap")

It's poverty row stuff--Chesterfield Pictures--and hardly dynamic filmmaking, but this is an extremely faithful adaptation of its source novel, with a terrific last five minutes of multiple false solutions.

9) THE NURSEMAID WHO DISAPPEARED (1939--based on the novel by Philip MacDonald)

An very exciting adaptation of Philip McDonald's novel, very reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's late '30s British work. Unfortunately, this is another film that is hard to track down (I saw a copy at the British film Institute). Much more faithful--and interesting--than the 1956 American remake, 23 Paces to Baker Street, which is nonetheless a good film.

a gripping film

10) THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE (1935 based on the novel by Erle Stanley Gardner) 

More dynamic filmmaking from Michael Curtiz.  Erle Stanley Gardner apparently wasn't all that crazy about it, but his plot is left fairly intact, and the Warners stock company gives it more verve and excitement than was ever found in the 1950's Perry Mason series.

Okay, not the bride, but it is Errol Flynn, and from the film!

11) THE NINTH GUEST (1934--based on the novel "The Invisible Host" by Bruce Manning and Gwen Bristow, and its stage adaptation by Owen Davis)

An atmospheric precursor to Christie's And Then There Were None, admittedly lacking Christie's plausibility and ingenuity, but excitingly directed by Roy William Neill, who would later direct the Universal Sherlock Holmes series. Lots of fun.

seven guests

12) MENACE (1934 - based on Philip MacDonald's R.I.P.)The screenwriter changed the identity of the culprit; but then, in this case, the identity of the culprit in the novel wasn't all that satisfying anyway! Actually, neither the novel nor the film has a solution that lives up to the its opening premise--how to identify the revenge-seeking brother of a dead man, whom  no one has ever seen before--but the premise is pretty great, keeping the viewer (reader) wondering all along. One of three films on this list to feature Paul Cavanagh, and he also showed up in several other interesting whodunits--the man certainly left his mark on the genre.

Menace--the film

Unfortunately, several of my favorite whodunit films (Affairs of a GentlemanThe Last of SheilaThe Phantom of CrestwoodCrime on the Hill) don't qualify, because they weren't made based on novels.

Menace--the novel

Thanks Scott!

I've seen the first five of the twelve films our Strolling Player lists, including The Verdict, and, I agree, they are all quite good.  Death on the Nile I recall seeing at the movie theater when I was, I think, twelve years old.

It's not the last of this mousetrap!
I wasn't aware of most of the other films that Scott lists, but they are a fascinating group to me, including two films based on fine novels by Philip MacDonald, one of the most cinematic of crime writers, who left England to work in Hollywood; a Perry Mason before Raymond Burr; another two films based on novels by today insufficiently acknowledged Golden Age American crime writers, Anthony Abbot and Rufus King (there's been quite a bit posted about King on this blog); one film based on the controversial And Then There Were None precursor, The Invisible Host, hilariously mocked by Bill Pronzini in his classic Gun in Cheek but also defended by others over the years; and, lastly, a film based on a novel by Sinclair Gluck,an author forgotten by just about everyone, I suspect, but about whom I shall have more to say this week.  I happen to have a number of novels by Mr. Gluck, including The Last Trap.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Termination at Tancred House: Kissing the Gunner's Daughter (1991), by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell has authored two dozen Inspector Wexford detective novels over a nearly-half-century period stretching from 1964 (From Doon with Death) to 2013 (No Man's Nightingale), Half of these books appeared between 1964 to 1983, when Wexford detective novels predominated in her fictional output.  In those same years of the earlier Wexfords, Rendell authored ten non-Wexfords. Since 1983, however, she has written 12 Wexfords, 18 non-Wexford psychological thrillers (including Dark Corners, to be published later this year) and 14 mysteries under her "Barbara Vine" pseudonym, launched in 1986.

Wexford, in other words, became less and less significant in her output, at least in terms of quantity. I would argue that her later eighties Wexford output is inferior in quality as well. In the period when she produced the psychological thrillers The Killing Doll, the Tree of Hands and Live Flesh and the Vine mysteries A Dark-Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion and The House of Stairs, the Wexford novels An Unkindness of Ravens (1985) and The Veiled One (1988) rather pale in comparison. I have previously detailed some of my issues with Raven; I recently looked again at The Veiled One and thought it had much too much of both Wexford's chief assistant, Mike Burden, and his daughter Sheila, who in this one has become a no nukes activist (anti-nuclear activism also comes up, as I recollect, in the contemporaneous PD James novel Devices and Desires).

Happily Rendell's Wexford bounded back with a 1991 novel, Kissing the Gunner's Daughter. While in this one Rendell eschews looking at wider social trends, like she would in what I call her "Murdermarch Trilogy" from the rest of the decade (Simisola, Road Rage and Harm Done), it's nevertheless a fine book, boasting an intricate, clued puzzle and reflecting the author's intensified interest in criminal psychology.

Kissing the Gunner's Daughter opens with an armed robbery by two men at a Kingsmarkham bank that results in the death of a somewhat dim, gung-ho cop, Detective Sergeant Martin. Rendell's opening chapter detailing the bank robbery and Martin's death is more like a modern crime novel than a classic mystery cozy: "Martin fell.  He did not double up, but sank to the floor as his knees buckled under him. Blood came from his mouth...."

More bloodletting follows six months later, in Chapter Three, when there is a massacre at Tancred House, the stately home of renowned anthropologist Davina Flory. Here Rendell only describes the crime scene after the fact, as viewed by the police; but it's a very bloody crime scene indeed, with Davina Flory, her third husband and her daughter from her first marriage all shot to death and her seventeen-year-old granddaughter, Daisy, bleeding profusely from a wound in the shoulder.

Daisy survives and give the police a picture of the massacre, which at first appears to have been a robbery by two men, gone very wrong.  But of course it turns out to be much more complicated than that....

Kissing the Gunner's Daughter seems a bit off the beaten track for a Wexford novel. The emphasis in the beginning on brutal violence reminded me rather of Rendell's non-Wexford novels A Judgment in Stone (1977) and Live Flesh (1985) (in truth, the opening chapter of Daughter is very similar to that of Live Flesh). The emphasis on psychological states shows the influence of her contemporaneous Rendell thrillers and Vine mysteries, I think.  Yet the plot is a good, complex detective novel plot in the classic Wexford manner, with some clever clueing (I even found myself wishing for a frontis map depicting Tancred House and its grounds).

At about 110,000 words, I judge, Daughter is longer than the early Wexfords, but not as long as future Wexfords would become (Harm Done is, I think, over 150,000 words).  In her review of Daughter, blurbed on the back of the recent British paperback edition, Kate Saunders declares that "as usual, there is not one superfluous word."  For myself, I could have survived without some of the copious nature scenery descriptions, but on the whole I think Daughter stands with Rendell's best Wexfords and is a fine example of the post-Golden Age English detective novel.

I should note that in this one Rendell introduces Sergeant Barry Vine, an obvious play on her recently-minted pseudonym.  She also has characters named Anne Lennox and Andy Griffin, names quite close to those of famous people from the entertainment world. Several women cops are introduced here as well, I believe, and they play greater roles in the Wexford saga over the 1990s and beyond.

This time around Wexford is having a go-round with his actress daughter Sheila over her new boyfriend, a grotesquely arrogant critically-esteemed novelist, Augustus Carey, whose work has been short-listed for the Booker prize ("He had already written at least one work of fiction without characters," Rendell wryly informs us).  If Rendell was having some fun with her creation of characters named Barry Vine, Anne Lennox and Andy Griffin, here she obviously is working off some irritation over dismissive attitudes to crime fiction in the literary world (we don't discover what Carey thinks of crime fiction, but we learn he is dismissive of horror writer M. R. James, a favorite of Rendell's--and mine).

Interestingly, Rendell is critical not only of Augustus Carey, but of dead Davina Flory herself.  Wexford reads some of her work and decides

that he didn't much like Davina.  She was a high-toned snob, both social and intellectual; she was bossy, she thought herself superior to most people; she was unkind to her daughter and feudal to her servants.  Although avowedly left-wing, she referred not to a "working class" but to a "lower class. Her books revealed her as that always suspect creature, the rich socialist.

I found this interesting criticism, coming from Rendell, herself a rich socialist.  But that's one of the fun things about reading Ruth Rendell--you can't pigeonhole the author or her work.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tippecanoe and Third Degree Too: The Green Shadow (1935), by James Edward Grant

In The Green Shadow tough sleuth Tip (short for Tippecanoe, don't you know) O'Neil is slapping hoods hard across their mouths on the second page of the book.  A few pages later he is reminiscing with Corinne Harding--the younger of the two daughters (the older one is named Nancy) of his hard-driving, wealthy capitalist friend Paul Harding--about the first couple of times he encountered her. This was a decade ago, when she was twelve, in the course of Tip's doing a job for her father:

"And you came up and asked if anyone would hurt your daddy.  Then you asked me if I knew Sherlock Holmes very well.  The next time I was at your house you came out on the porch with your sister Nancy and she asked me what a pervert was.  You were wearing a blue dress and little white socks.  Your hair was in braids but Nancy's was piled on her head.  Got enough?"

Shades of Sternwood!  It shouldn't be hard for the hard-boiled reader to discern in The Green Shadow a certain resemblance not only to Dashiell Hammett but Raymond Chandler. The Harding girls, like Chandler's Sternwood sisters (see the author's The Big Sleep, 1939), prove to be handfuls not only for their father, but for Tip himself, what with Corinne getting kidnapped and Nancy being, well, a neurotic nymphomaniac (this is the opinion of everyone in the book, including Nancy herself).

A couple times in the novel, which is narrated by Tip O'Neil, needy Nancy tries to perform bedroom pas a deux with Tip--hairy, fat and forty-seven--but he isn't having any of that from the daughter of a client.

Here is some conversation between Nancy and Tip, after the bold young woman barges one night into his bedroom at the Harding mansion:

Bob Hoskins would have made a
great Tip O'Neil on film, I think
She eyed me.  "Lord, you're a hairy gorilla.  You still don't wear underwear, do you?


Nancy nodded.  "When you were staying at our Long Island place [this a decade ago, when Nancy was a teenager] I used to go out on the balcony at night and watch you undress through the window. You never wore socks or underwear."

"You're a prize," I told her.

Nancy is neurotically jealous of her younger, prettier half-sister and is a potential suspect in Corinne's kidnapping, as are a number of other people in the extended Harding household, including:

Gene Leland, Corinne's fiancee; Amelia Glenray, Nancy's cocktail-quaffing, pistol-packing spinster aunt (Miss Marple she ain't: "Her figure didn't show her fifty-two years. She had better legs than either of her nieces"); Jim Glenray, Paul's lawyer and Nancy's uncle; and third chauffeur Frank Lilly, actually one of Tip's operatives from the Acme Detective Agency but recently seen canoodling with Nancy (but then who hasn't been canoodling with Nancy).

And then there's raft of colorful gangsters and hoodlums who just might have snatched Corinne. Tip has his hands full-and not just with Nancy!

In addition to being quite sexually frank for the day, The Green Shadow is about as "politically incorrect" as a hard-boiled crime novel can be.  Tip's observations on women in the chapter entitled "Seductio Ad Absurdum" can quite legitimately be labeled sexist. Aside from the Harding women most of the female characters in the novel seems to be hookers and low rent floozies, and they tend to get slapped around by men (actually Tip slaps Nancy at one point, but this is only after she has "gotten hysterical").  One of the wisecracks in this tale of myriad wisecracks is uttered as a man smacks a sleeping call girl on the back: "Wake up, Cleo. The Elks are in town."

In the course of the novel two black men, Paul Harding's first and second chauffeurs, are murdered; and various objectionable slang terms are used in reference to them by several characters.  Tip doesn't hesitate to beat up anyone from whom he wants information, including Corinne's own fiancee. A former policeman, he has good relations with the cops and they and he all seem to take the pleasing utility of third degree and the rubber hose for granted.

the preferred method for obtaining information
in The Green Shadow

Which isn't to say that Tip doesn't have his good side: as mentioned, he honorably refuses to sleep with his clients' daughters (and wives, one presumes) and at one point insists that a street urchin witness get a good breakfast and reward money. However, though this tough guy averts his eyes when it looks like Paul Harding may start weeping over his kidnapped daughter's potential fate, he is casually indifferent to the sight of bullet-riddled bodies.

In short, the world depicted in The Green Shadow is a hard and tough one; and, although Tip is not the most unlikable character in the book, I didn't like him at all.  His model would seem to have been Hammett's Continental Op and his world seems a lot like that in Red Harvest (1929). What does Tip think of this world?  Here's Tip:

Your old-time desperado was a curly wolf, all right.  But a wolf can be hunted down. These present day gangs consist mainly of rats.  You'll notice that the wolf is pretty nearly extinct, while we still have hordes of rats.

Tip suggests levying a Federal tax for a crime fund that would provide reward money for snitches, but he complains that when "Mr. Harding and the rest of the rugged individualists" hear the word tax "they start to scream in chorus."  Until such a tax is levied, Tip avows, it will take private agencies like his own to really crack down on commercial crimes ("Murder for profit and kidnapping and kindred rackets").

endpaper design in the Hartney Press edition
of The Green Shadow

Though I disliked Tip and his rats-infested world, I have to admit that I found The Green Shadow a smoothly-conducted tale with a good plot that had genuine ratiocination.  In the end, Tip uses his brains as well as his fists to solve the case and that should appeal to those who prefer (intact) grey cells to rubber hoses.

The Green Shadow was filmed, a year after it was published, as Muss 'em Up, starring Preston Foster as Tip (oddly, it seems never to have been reprinted in paperback--"pulped" as academia says these days).  I can't quite see Preston Foster as Tip judging by photos, but maybe people better versed in his career can tell me.  I would love to see the film to find how closely it followed the book. It couldn't have been quite as hard-boiled!

Friday, February 20, 2015

"Out-Hams Hammett"? The Green Shadow (1935), by James Edward Grant

James Edward Grant (1905-1966) is best known today as a Hollywood scriptwriter and member of the inner circle of John Wayne.  He wrote scripts for a dozen Wayne films, including Angel and the Badman (which he also directed), Sands of Iwo Jima, Flying Leathernecks, Big Jim McClain, Hondo, Trouble Along the Way, The Barbarian and the Geisha, The Alamo, The Comancheros, Donovan's Reef, McClintock! and Circus World.

Although now most associated with Westerns and action films, Grant did write some screenplays for crime genre movies, including Miracles for Sale, based on Clayton Rawson's locked room mystery Death from a Top Hat (1939), Johnny Eager (1942), for which Van Heflin won an Oscar, and Ring of Fear, which starred Mickey Spillane as--well, Mickey Spillane (Grant directed that one too). Another crime film, Whipsaw, starring Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy, was based on a 1934 Grant short story.  He also was nominated for an Oscar for his script for a Glenn Ford western, The Sheepman.

Far less remembered is what appears to be Grant's solitary crime novel, a very hard-boiled tale called The Green Shadow that was published by The Hartney Press in 1935, the same year the film Whipsaw appeared.  Hartney was a new concern that ambitiously promised to publish four novels monthly, including a mystery, but in the event only seems to have produced, in the mystery line, one additional book, Q. Patrick's excellent, if rather grisly, The Grindle Nightmare (1935), reviewed by John Norris.  An author biography section in The Green Shadow promises readers that Grant was working on a new mystery for Hartney, but it seems never to have appeared (Grant evidently was more interested in working directly in film).

The author bio aimed to assure readers that Grant, like Dashiell Hammett, had an authentic background for writing hard-boiled fiction.  A native Chicagoan and son of a "Chief Investigator for the State Attorney of Illinois," Grant drifted, we are told, "into the newspaper game," where he

became a specialist in rackets and other forms of muscle-and-gun crimes.  He handled the publicity angle of several sensational exposes including the multi-million dollar frauds in the City Sealers Office, and also the trade-union news for a labor magazine during the years that the gangsters were gunning their way into the unions.  His assignments led him into a personal acquaintance with most of Chicago's boom-boom boys.  His syndicated column, "It's a Racket," analyzed some three hundred separate and distinct rackets.  The articles caused such a stir in the Chicago underworld that several prominent mobsters left town.  

The Green Shadow was a success, winning notice--not entirely laudatory--for its extreme hard-boiledness.  The Saturday Review declared that the novel "out-Hams Hammett" and the New York Times avowed of the characters: "Their speech and their actions are completely uninhibited, and the author makes no attempt to tone them down.  If he had, his book could be more warmly and generally recommended."  Despite this admonition, the Times admitted that "James Edward Grant has written a story that will make the other exponents of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction look to their laurels."

The film version of The Green Shadow, Muss 'em Up, appeared the next year.  The film was directed by Charles Vidor and received a rave review from Frank S. Nugent in the New York Times, who interestingly observed:

It is a compliment to James Edward Grant, who wrote the book upon which the film is based, to say that his [sleuth] Tip O'Neil might have been invented by Dashiell Hammett himself.  Tough, witty, eminently practical, Tip (short for Tippecanoe) is a perfect illustration of the modern detective hero. Unless you happen to be a member of the crime trust (fictionally speaking), you may not know that the armchair [sic] detective, best represented by Sherlock Holmes and Philo Vance, has lost his grip. The new generation of mystery story readers wants detectives who can meet criminals on their own ground and plow them under.  Mr. Grant's Tip is not merely willing to meet his opponents on their home ground but to burrow a little.  Which is both unethical and enjoyable.

On the other hand, Bill Pronzini in Gun in Cheek was less enamored with Grant's wisecracking tough guy sleuth Tip O'Neil.  Pronzini deemed the Grant's shamus a typical example of the hard-boiled private eye as mere smart-ass,  "an annoying convention" that lasted for decades.

What did I think of The Green Shadow and Tip O'Neil?  Check in this weekend and see!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"I just tend the bar": The Drop (2014)

Films have been made from Dennis Lehane's novels Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River and Shutter Island (the film versions were directed by, respectively, DGA winners Ben Affleck, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese--no slouches there). The latest film made from a piece of Dennis Lehane fiction, The Drop, is based on the author's short story "Animal Rescue," with a script by Lehane himself and directed by Michael R. Roskam, director of the critically-acclaimed 2011 Belgian film Rundskop (Bullhead).

Bob (Tom Hardy) with "Rocco"
The title "The Drop" references a Brooklyn "drop bar"--where Chechen mob money gets stashed for short time--run by former owner "Cousin Marv" (the late James Gandolfini). Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), an actual cousin of "Cousin Marv," tends bar.  Early in the film the bar is robbed by two masked hoodlums.  Mob cash is stolen, which puts Marv and Bob on the spot with Chovka (Michael Aronov), the silkily menacing son of the Chechen crime boss, to, as he puts it, "find my money."

Meanwhile, Bob rescues a badly contused pit bull puppy dumped into a garbage can, which leads him into a relationship of sorts with kindhearted waitress Nadia (Noomi Rapace, film's original Lisbeth Salander).

This in turn brings him into conflict with local menacing, screws-loose character Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), reputed to have killed a local man who disappeared ten years earlier. Mild-mannered, church-going Bob tries to stay out of the varied cesspools swirling around him ("I just tend the bar" is his refrain), but the cesspools are getting ever bigger, dragging in everything around him.  What will Bob do?

Nadia (Noomi Rapace)

This is a terse summary of the plot, but in plot description I try to err on the side of stinginess in order to avoid spoilers.  Aside from the fact that the film boasts great performances (Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, who play the most developed characters, stand out, but the other actors named above nailed their roles as well), I loved Lehane's script, which details a plot that should please classic mystery fans. Having watched The Drop a second time now on DVD, I think it one of the best crime films from recent years and I heartily recommend it.

"Cousin Marv" (James Gandolfini)