Saturday, January 31, 2015

1/31/1941 "Watson Was A Woman"

January 31, 1941.  Rex Stout, the author of more than 30 novels about private eye Nero Wolfe, shocked the world today when he spoke at a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars.  His topic?  "Watson Was A Woman."

The Irregulars are fans of Sherlock Holmes, dedicated to the "great game," the careful study and interpretation of Arthur Conan Doyle's work, grounded in the assumption that Holmes was real and Doyle merely Dr. Watson's "literary agent."  But no one expected Stout to announce his discovery that Watson was the Great Detective's wife.

Here is Stout quoting from the Canon, and then explicating:

The reader may set me down as a hopeless busybody, and when I confess how much this man stimulated my curiosity, and how often I endeavored to break through the reticence which he showed on all that concerned himself.
You bet she did. She would. Poor Holmes! She doesn't even bother to employ one of the stock euphemisms such as, "I wanted to understand him better," or, "I wanted to share things with him." She proclaims it with brutal directness, "I endeavored to break through the reticence." I shuddered and for the first time in my life felt that Sherlock Holmes was not a god, but human--human by his suffering. Also, from that one page I regarded the question of the Watson person's sex as settled for good. 

Not surprisingly, Stout's tongue-in-cheek theorizing did not achieve overwhelming support.  But it was published in the Saturday Review, and has been in print more or less ever since.

Friday, January 30, 2015

1/30/1977 The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew hit TV

January 30, 1977.  Ah, those seventies Farrah-style haircuts.  This was very good day for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the family-run business of book-packagers who had created both Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene, the alleged authors of the most popular teen sleuths in history.  Today The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Mysteries premiered on ABC, starring Parker Stevenson, Shaun Cassidy, and Pamela Sue Martin.  The boys didn't meet the girl until the second season.  The show shifted emphases, titles and actors before ending in 1979.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

1/29/1845 Quoth the Raven

January 29, 1845.  Well, arguably "The Raven" has nothing to do with mystery, but who would deny it a place in our field (or on the bust of Pallas)?  MWA even uses it as the name for awards not directly related to writing.  Edgar Allan Poe's most famous work appeared in the Evening Mirror on this date.  (It also appeared in the February issue of The American Review under a pseudonym, so that might have hit the newsstands first.)  It made him a celebrity immediately.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

1/28/1946 Craig Rice graces Time

January 28, 1946.  Craig Rice was the first mystery writer to make the cover of Time Magazine.  Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig is not so well remembered  these days, but her comic mysteries about Hildegarde Withers, Helene Justus, John J. Malone, and others were very successful in the mid-twentieth century, and several were made into movies, such as Home Sweet Homicide.  

(Thanks to Noah Stewart for catching my mistake.  Hildegarde Withers was created by Stuart Palmer.  Rice and Palmer collaborated on one book.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

1/27/2012 One For The Money hits the screen

January 27, 2012.  Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum hit the big screen on this day, in the form of Katherine Heigl in One For The Money, directed by Julie Anne Robinson.

Monday, January 26, 2015

1/26/1931 The Glass Key is turned

January 26, 1931.  What a terrible cover.  Dashiell Hammett's fourth (and favorite) novel, The Glass Key, was published by Knopf on this date in England, and in the U.S. three months later.  It is the grim story of Ned Beaumont, a gambler, who investigates the murder of a senator's son for his friend, a crooked political boss.

The book has been filmed twice, and inspired such movies as Yojimbo, and Miller's Crossing.  The prize for the best Nordic crime novel is the Glass Key Award.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

1/25/2014 Isabel Allende rips the mystery field

January 25, 2014.  Isabel Allende is a bestselling mainstream novelist.  When her crime novel Ripper came out she appeared on NPR and said a few things that didn't go well with the mystery world.

The book is tongue in cheek. It's very ironic ... and I'm not a fan of mysteries, so to prepare for this experience of writing a mystery I started reading the most successful ones in the market in 2012. ... And I realized I cannot write that kind of book. It's too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there's no redemption there. And the characters are just awful. Bad people. Very entertaining, but really bad people. So I thought, I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke. My sleuth will not be this handsome detective or journalist or policeman or whatever. It will be a young, 16-year-old nerd. My female protagonist will not be this promiscuous, beautiful, dark-haired, thin lady. It will be a plump, blond, healer, and so forth.

Nothing to win new fans like announcing you're slumming in their field.  By the time she apologized in February her book had received tons of publicity.  Perhaps that was the point of the exercise?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

1/24/1977 Elmore Leonard stops drinking

January 24 1977.  On this date Elmore Leonard, after years of trouble with the bottle, gave up booze for good.

Friday, January 23, 2015

1/23/1975 Barney Miller premieres

January 23, 1975.  Barney Miller premiered on this day, on ABC.  It ran until 1982.  Was there ever a better sitcom about cops?  The detectives of New York's 12th Precinct had vivid personalities and hilarious conflicts. A few favorite lines, probably garbled from memory:
Levitt: (after earning a glare from Captain Miller) I"ll be downstairs in a pool of blood if you need me.
Wojo: (after arresting a shoe fetishist) This sort of thing used to shock me but now I realize there's nothing in the whole Sears catalog someone doesn't want to sleep with.
Yemana: Barney, divorce is like a horse with a broken leg. You can shoot the horse, but that don't fix the leg.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

1/22/1917 Parlor Games begin

January 22, 1917.  On this date the action begins in Maryka Biaggio's novel Parlor Games (2013) when May Dugas goes on trial in Michigan.  The book is based on the true-life globe-trotting adventures of a turn-of-the century con woman. 

Kirkus Reviews called it: "An engaging glimpse into a character, who categorically eludes our attempts to define her.”  I enjoyed the unusual structure which alternates between May's trial and the life that leads up to it.  If the real-life woman was anything like her fictional counterpart she was fascinating but not anyone you would want to turn your back on...

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

1/21/1953 Sherlock Holmes (?) dances (?)

January 21, 1953.  It is a little hard to imagine the Master on point, and in fact his name does not appear but who else could be dancing around in a deerstalker cap and carrying a magnifying glass?  On this date Richard Arnell's ballet The Great Detective had its world premiere.  You can find pictures from it on the web, if you try hard enough.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

1/20/1945 Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?

January 20 1945.  The most famous attack on mystery fiction was an article by critic Edmund Wilson, which appeared in the January 20, 1945 issue of The New Yorker.  "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" declares Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors "one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field."  He also calls Ngaio Marsh's writing "unappetizing sawdust." 

This piece was actual a response to readers who had complained about an earlier piece in which he described Rex Stout's work as "sketchy and skimpy," and declared Agatha Christie "literally impossible to read."  He admitted to liking Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, but said it was an adventure story, not a detective story.  For the record, he also loathed J.R.R. Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft.

Monday, January 19, 2015

1/19/1809 Edgar Allan Poe is born

January 19, 1809.  Edgar Allan Poe is born in Boston, Massachusetts.  In forty mostly miserable years he managed to invent the mystery story (including such now-cliches as the master detective, the narrating assistant, the least-likely suspect, the roman a clef, the obvious clue, the inverted mystery, and on and on).  He also earned some credit for the formation of horror and science fiction, and wrote a pretty good poem about a birdie.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

1/18/2002 Gosford Park premieres

January 18, 2002.  Robert Altman's stylish murder mystery premiered on this day.  Gosford Park takes place at an English country house where a group of people and their servants gather for a hunting party in the 1930s.  In the great Agatha  Christie tradition, murder occurs.

The film was nominated for more than sixty awards, and won more than 20.  It also inspired Downton Abbey, in which Maggie Smith plays a similar character to the one in the movie.  She delivers my favorite line in the flick: "When you think of what they have to carry, all those jimmies and torches and skeleton keys, it's a miracle anyone ever gets burgled at all..."

Saturday, January 17, 2015

1/17/1832 A Tragedy at Tiverton

January 17, 1832.  On this day an advertisement appeared in a New York newspaper that led to a swindle that led to young attorney Christopher Randolph meeting shrewd Irish-American criminal lawyer Lon Quincannon, and his involvement in the investigation of a pregnant mill worker's murder.

The Tragedy at Tiverton (1984) is the first of three mysteries by Raymond Paul, all about the wily Quincannon, and each based on an actual murder of the pre-Civil War era.  One thing that makes the boks unique is that in each one, the narrator, the "Watson," is a different young man. 

The New York Times called it "a very quiet but very definite tour de force."  And that's no swindle.

Friday, January 16, 2015

1/16/1939 I Love A Mystery

January 16, 1939.  One of radio's most popular detective stories premiered today on NBC's West
Coast network.  The three heroes, Jack Packard, Doc Long, and Reggie York, met fighting the Japanese in China.  Now they run a detective agency and travel the world in search of mystery and adventure.  The series morphed in many ways over the years, including a movie series.  Perhaps the best known actor involved was Tony Randall who played the Englishman, Reggie, for a while.

The show's biggest effect on popular culture happened decades later when it inspired Fred Silverman to create one of the most popular television cartoons series.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

1/15/1981 Hill Street Blues premieres

January 15, 1981.  One of TV's best cop shows premiered on this night on NBC, in 1981.  It won eight Emmys the first year, and scored a total of 98 nominations in its eight years on the air.  The style and production techniques influenced TV for decades to come, with its overlapping conversations, many-episode arcs, and over a dozen regular characters to keep track of.  Do you remember the episode in which regular Howard Hunter faced the camera while  pointing a gun at his head, and then (just after the camera went black, as it did at the end of each show), pulling the trigger?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

1/14/1947 Richard Laymon is born

January 14, 1947.  Richard Laymon was born today in 1947, in Chicago. He authored more than thirty novels and twice that many stories.  He wrote suspense and mystery, but was better known for horror, being nominated for the Bram Stoker award three times, with one win.  

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

1/13/1968 Johnny Cash goes to prison

January 13, 1968.  On this day Johnny Cash recorded a live album at Folsom Prison in California.  He won his first Grammy Award for his live performance of "Folsom Prison Blues," a song he wrote while serving in the Air Force in Germany in the 1950s.

Cash said he came up with the famous line "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die," by thinking of the worst possible reason  to kill someone.  That line was yanked from the single version after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June.  The song hit Number 1.

Monday, January 12, 2015

1/12/1970 Shroud for a Nightingale begins

January 12, 1970.  The action begins on this date in P.D. James' fourth novel about Adam Dalgleish.  Two women have been murdered in a nursing school called Nightingale House...  The New York Times called it "Mystery at its best."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

1/11/1918 Robert C. O'Brien was born

January 11, 1918.  Robert Conly was born this day in Brooklyn.  He was best known for books he wrote as Robert C. O'Brien, including the children's classic Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  He won the 1976 Best Juvenile Novel Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for  Z for Zacharia,  which was finished by his wife Sally and daughter Jame after his death.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

1/10/2011 Joe Gores dies on an anniversary

January 10, 2011.  Joe Gores passed away, fifty years to the day after Dashiell Hammett.  Both of these men were private detectives before they turned to crime fiction.  Gores wrote a novel using Hammett as the main character, another that was an authorized prequel to The Maltese Falcon, and a short story in which one of his own characters worked with Hammett's Continental Op.

Friday, January 9, 2015

1/9/1968 It Takes A Thief

January 9, 1968.  It Takes A Thief premiered today on ABC.  Robert Wagner's first starring role had him as Alexander Mundy, a cat burglar who reluctantly agrees to steal for a US spy agency, in order to stay out of jail.  Malachi Throne (what a great name!) and later Edward Binns played his boss.  In the third and last season Fred Astaire sometimes guest starred as Mundy's equally crooked father.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

1/8/1999 A Civil Action is released

January 8, 1999.  The legal flick A Civil Action was released in the USA on this date.  Stephen Zaillian wrote the screenplay and directed, based on a nonfiction book by Jonathan Harr.   John Travolta starred as Jan Schlichtmann, the attorney who sued companies on behalf of families who felt they had been exposed to carcinogenic pollution.  The movie scored two Oscar nominations.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

1/7/1912 Charles Addams is born

January 7, 1912.  This date saw the birth of Charles Addams, one of the most unusual artists of the twentieth century.  If you search Google for "cartoonist Charles Addams" about 25% of the entries have the word "macabre."

Does he really belong on a page about mystery fiction?  He's more in the horror camp, I suppose.  But if the Mystery Writers of America thought he deserved a special Edgar Award in 1961 (and they did) that's good enough for me. 

Besides the creepy characters who inspired The Addams Family he drew plenty of crime-related cartoons.  Remember the gangster firing his machine gun out the window at the police while his long-suffering wife sweeps up the spent cartridges?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

1/6/1945 The Saint comes to American radio

January 6, 1945.  On this day one of the genre's most famous characters made his official first appearance on American radio, played by Edgar Barrier.  Simon Templar, alias the Saint, was a loveable rogue, created by Leslie Charteris in the 1928 novel Meet The Tiger.  The show started on NBC and bounced around to several networks indifferent incarnations until 1951.

Charteris frequently feuded with the producers of the radio show, complaining that their Templar was too passive, a man who was constantly being dragged into adventures, rather than seeking them out.  You can find some of his cranky letters in Burl Barer's Edgar-winning The Saint: A Complete History in Print, Radio, Television, and Film.

Monday, January 5, 2015

1/5/195? George Smiley arrives

January 5, 195?.  On this date George Smiley entered the world as John LeCarre's first novel, Call For The Dead, begins.  Smiley was the brilliant operative for a British spy organization called the Circus.  He is a great character, a dedicated man who never seems to fit in anywhere completely; the first sentence tells us his wife has left him, but their off-on relationship distracts him through many books.  In almost every novel he either quits the  Circus, or gets dragged back into it.  Smiley appears as a minor or major character in eight novels, most famously The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

1/4/1991 The Grifters is released

January 4, 1991.  It was typical of Jim Thompson's luck that his work became hugely popular years after he died.  No better example is this great movie made from his novel The Grifters, a grim tale of a family of con artists.

In his posthumous book The Getaway Car Donald E. Westlake talks about his reluctance to turn the book into a movie.  Director Stephen Frears won him over by explaining that it is the mother's story and he should write it that way. 

Frears also wanted the writer on the set, which is almost unheard of and allowed Westlake to fix a line as soon as he heard an actor having trouble with it. 

The result worked, catching four Academy Award nominations, including ones for Frear, Westlake, Anjelica Huston (who played Lilly, the mother), and Annette Bening.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

1/3/1952 Dragnet premieres on NBC

January 3, 1952.  Dragnet started on the radio in 1949, but moved to NBC television on this date in 1952.  Jack Webb's influential salute ot the Los Angeles Police Department ran until 1959.  He revived it in 1967 -- still as producer and star -- and it stayed on until 1970.  It gave us "Just the facts, ma'am," "The names have been changed to protect the innocent," and of course, DUM-da-dum-dum.

Friday, January 2, 2015

1/2/1919 Charles WIlleford is born

January 2, 1919.  "Nobody writes a better crime novel," is what Elmore Leonard said about Charles Willeford, who was born this day in Arkansas.  He started writing in the 1950s after years in  and out of the military.    Many consider The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971) his best book but Miami Blues (published in his sixties), which introduced his character Hoke Moseley, is considered the start of modern Florida crime fiction. It was made into a movie, as were Cockfighter,  and The Woman Chaser.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

1/1/2015 Today in MYSTERY HISTORY begins

January 1, 2015

A new blog begins.  Today in MYSTERY HISTORY will report on some event related to mystery fiction every day.  It could be an author's birthdate, the anniversary of a book's publication or a movie's release, the date of some event in a crime novel, or much more.

If you have a suggestion for something you would like to see commemorated, leave it in the comments.  One warning: I don't list the birthdays of living individuals.