Thursday, December 31, 2015

12/31/2008 Donald E. Westlake dies

December 31, 2008.  Donald E. Westlake died in Mexico after a New Year's Eve dinner with his wife.  Westlake was an MWA Grand Master, and one of only three people to win the Edgar Award in three different categories.  He is the only author I know of who achieved his greatest fame by self-parody: his comic classics about thief John Dortmunder were a funhouse mirror reflection of the grim books about thief Parker, which he wrote under the name Richard Stark.

I once attended a conference where he was speaking and snuck into the dining room to rearrange place cards so I could sit at his table.  Dortmunder would have  approved. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

12/30/1956 Miss Marple meets the media

December 30, 1956.  Agatha Christie's elderly amateur sleuth, Jane Marple, has shown up in several movies and TV series, but her first appearance was on NBC's Goodyear TV Playhouse, showing on this night.  Gracie Fields starred in A Murder is Announced.  Roger Moore and Jessica Tandy also performed.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

12/29/1881 A Tragic Mystery occurs

December 29, 1881.  On the evening of this day four members of a New York City gang called the Whyos entered a bar in Hell's Kitchen.  A few hours later the bar closed, the owner Louis Hanier, went down to investigate a noise and was shot dead.  Famous policeman Thomas F. Byrnes led the investigation that led to convictions of three men.  The leader of the Whyos, Mike McGloin, was hanged for the crime.

Connection to crime fiction?  Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel and a very popular author in his own right at the time, wrote A Tragic Mystery, based on the events.  It was one of five books he co-authored with Byrnes, who supplied the plots.

Interestingly enough, Hawthorne  got to experience another side of the justice system in 1913 when he was sent to prison for selling three million shares in a mine that, alas, did not actually exist. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

12/28/195? Run Man Run begins

December 28, 195?.  The plot of Chester Himes' novel, Run Man Run  begins on this day when a drunken New York City cop strolls into a restaurant and kills two Black workers because, why not?  All the surviving witness has to do is stay away from the killer and convince the authorities to believe a Black man over a white cop.  How hard can that be?

Published in 1960, the book seems depressingly relevant for today's world.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

12/27/1895 Staggerlee shot Billy

December 27, 1895.  According to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, on this day a pimp named "Stag" Lee Shelton killed William Lyons in a bar in St. Louis.  Apparently Lyon had stolen his Stetson hat.

A barroom killing may not sound like big news.  But the song that came from the event, "Staggerlee," has been recorded more than 400 times.  Apparently the first recording was in 1923  by... Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians????

In the most common version of the song Staggerlee dies in the electric chair and winds up taking over hell.  (He was  a bad man, that Staggerlee.)  In real life there was a hung jury.  On the second trial he was sentenced to twenty-five years in jail.  Later he was pardoned, for some strange reason, and killed another William during a burglary.  And he was pardoned again but died prior to release.

There is a fascinating website about the story/song.  Its creator says: No other song has so transcended its humble beginnings and been re-invented in so many genres, in so many media and by so many artists.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

12/26/1917 Patricia McGerr is born

December 26, 1917.  Patricia McGerr, born on this day, was the author of more than 15 mystery novels, but she is best remembered for the ingenious concept of her first book, Pick Your Victim.

One member of a group of bored American soldiers at a base in the Arctic gets a package from home.  Among the wrappings is a scrap of his hometown newspaper, announcing that someone he knows has been convicted of murder - but the identity of the victim is not included.  So the soldiers pass the time by learning all that the recipient knows about the "suspects," trying to figure out who was killed.

Source of the date: Bill Malloy's Mystery Book of Days.

Friday, December 25, 2015

12/25/1960 The Innocents arrive in time for Christmas

December 25, 1960.  You might think it would be hard to find something mystery-related on Christmas day.  Not a big publishing date.  Ah, but tons of movies are released then.

The Innocents was an adaptation of Henry James' classic novella The Turn of the Screw, about a governess who becomes convinced her two young charges are being tormented by very nasty ghosts. Talk about a war on Christmas, huh?

Deborah Kerr starred.  The flick won the Edgar for best Mystery Motion Picture.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

12/24/199? Darkness, Take My Hand

December 24, 199?  Dennis Lehane's second novel, Darkness, Take My Hand, begins on Christmas EveBoston private eyes Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro try to help a psychologist who is being threatened.  Soon someone is murdered and the M.O. matches a man who has been in prison for twenty years.  Things are going to get much worse before they get better.

Publishers Weekly said: "The story is densely peopled with multidimensional characters; there are no forgettable, walk-on roles on Lehane's stage. Lehane's voice, original, haunting and straight from the heart, places him among that top rank of stylists who enrich the modern mystery novel."

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

12/23/1971 Dirty Harry feels lucky

December 23, 1971.  This date saw the release of Dirty Harry, a movie that shaped thrillers for decades.  It was Clint Eastwood's first of five appearances as Dirty Harry Callahan.  In 2012 the National Film Register listed it for preservation as a significant film.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

12/22/1992 Ah, Treachery!

December 22, 1992.  The plot of Ross Thomas's last novel began on this date.  Ah, Treachery! is about Captain Edd "Twodees" Partain, ex-army, who gets involved in a search for the thieves who stole some stolen money.  And don't forget VOMIT, the Victims of Military Intelligence Treachery.  It's Ross Thomas.  It will all make sense.

Monday, December 21, 2015

12/21/1967 The President's Analyst is revealed

December 21, 1967.  If someone who had not been there asked me what life in America was like in the 1960s was like I would sit them down in front of The President's Analyst.  Maybe they wouldn't learn anything, but they would have a good time and stop asking stupid questions.

But seriously, it's all there: spy movies, hippies, rock music, government conspiracies, paranoia, more paranoia...

And damn, it's funny.

James Coburn plays the lucky therapist chosen to be First Shrink for the never seen or named president.   He's thrilled but he is being followed by those two great American espionage organizations, the FBR and the CEA.  And he soon realizes he is a target for every spy  in the world and that he can't trust anybody.  Anybody.

Great performances by Coburn, Godrey Cambridge, William Daniels,  Walter Buck, Pat Harrington, Joan Delaney, etc.

Those of you seeing it for the first time in recent years are missing a key sequence, apparently left out because of a problem with the music rights.  Here is the key point you are missing: the woman our hero proposes to is one he has just met the night before.  This is a man who knows his own mind.

Some favorite quotes:

"It explains your utter lack of hostility. You can vent your aggressive feelings by actually killing people! It's a sensational solution to the hostility problem."

"We've both done weekend picketing."

 "No, I do not want that in the house. That is my car gun. My house gun is already in the house. Now, put that back in the glove compartment, and don't let me catch you fooling with my guns again. "

"If I was a psychiatrist, which I am, I would say that I was turning into some sort of paranoid personality, which I am!"


Sunday, December 20, 2015

12/20/1918 Joseph Payne Brennan is born

December 20, 1918.  On this date Joseph Payne Brennan was born.  He wrote hundreds of short stories which have appeared in hundreds of anthologies.  His main work was horror, but he wrote close to 20 stories about Lucius Leffing, an occult detective.  The supernatural element of the tales ebbed and floed depending on the market he was writing for, but the structure was a salute to Arthur Conan Doyle, with Brennan himself playing the "Watson" role.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

12/19/1991 Pel and the Missing Persons

December 19, 1991.  This date saw the publication of Mark Hebden's fourteenth and last novel about Chief Inspector Pel of Burgundy.  Kirkus Reviews called Pel and the Missing Persons "another solid job from an ever-reliable author."

Mark Hebden was actually an Englishman named John Harris, and the author of more than 70 novels.

Friday, December 18, 2015

12/18/1965 The Possibility of Evil exists

December 18, 1965.  You may think that the famous story "The Lottery" is the greatest piece of short fiction Shirley Jackson ever wrote.  You are entitled to your opinion, of course, but you happen to be wrong.

On this date, a few months after the author died, Saturday Evening Post published "The Possibility of Evil."  It tells of Miss Adela Strangeworth, lovely name, a venerable spinster, and the extraordinary lengths to which she is willing to go to protect the town her family founded. 

The MWA gave it the Edgar for Best Story of the year.   They were right.

You can find it on the web, but I doubt that page is copyright compliant, so I won't link to it here. Find it.  Read it.  You are welcome.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

12/17/1975 Rumpole courts TV

December 17, 1975.  This date saw the debut of a great character.  Barrister John Mortimer claimed that he invented Horace Rumpole as a retirement plan, and it certainly worked out that way.  The beloved and curmudgeonly advocate was in his sixties when he first arrived on the BBC, but he managed to keep plugging away on TV through 1992, and in books through 2009.

One inevitable problem with this longevity is that Rumpole, who was supposed to be a very minor barrister, defending hopeless cases in small British courts, became more successful (winning most of his cases in later years) and wound up appearing in an amazing number of venues: a Church of England inquiry, a medical investigation, a court martial, and an African court where the death penalty was a real possibility.  He wound up on trial himself, and - even less likely - once served as a prosecutor.  (Naturally he wound up proving the innocence of the man he was prosecuting.)

On TV Rumpole, whose motto was "Never plead guilty!", was played by Australian actor Leo McKern.  On radio he was played by Maurice Denham, Timothy West, and (inevitably) the unbiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

12/16/1933 The Strange Death of Louis Joseph Vance

December 16, 1933.  So, how many mystery writers died of spontaneous combustion?

Well, none really.  But there are two candidates.  One of them died today.

Louis Joseph Vance wrote tons of short stories, many of them about Michael Lanyard, aka The Lone Wolf.  Lanyard was a jewel thief who turned into  a private eye.  The character was made into 24  movies, one of which (The Lone Wolf  Meets A Lady  (1940))  was based on a book by a different author,  The Maltese Falcon.

Oh, about Vance's death?  Vance died on this day, burned to death in his armchair.  He had been smoking, drinking, and, for some reason, using benzene.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

12/15/1966 After the Fox escapes

December 15, 1966.  Today saw the release of After The Fox, a wild comic caper novel written by Neil Simon, and directed by Vittorio de Sica.  Peter Sellers plays Aldo Vanucci, a criminal mastermind who escapes from a prison to help smuggle a shipload of Egyptian gold into Italy.

His plan?  Pose as a movie director and hire a cast and crew to film a movie to be called "The Gold of Cairo."  It makes one wonder if the CIA agents who dreamed up the Canadian egress from Tehran saw this flick. 

There's some wonderful stuff in this movie but my heart belongs to Victor Mature, bravely playing an over-the-hill star hoping for a comeback in Vanucci's alleged masterpiece.

"Aagghh! If only I could steal enough to become an honest man!"

Monday, December 14, 2015

12/14/1926 Agatha Christie's real life mystery ends

December 14, 1926.  Agatha Christie was already a bestselling author in 1926 when she disappeared, leaving her daughter at home, and her car beside a lake.  The exact nature of her problem is still debated, but it appears to have been a nervous breakdown brought on by stress.  Her husband had recently asked for a divorce and that day, after an argument, had gone off to spend the weekend with his mistress.

Christie was found on December 14 in a hotel in Yorkshire, checked in under the last name of her husband's mistress.  In her autobiography, she skipped the entire event.  So the mystery ended, but you can't exactly say it was solved.  

Sunday, December 13, 2015

12/13/1915 Ross Macdonald begins to develop his doom-filled past

December 13, 1915.  Kenneth Millar was born this day in Los Gatos, California.  He grew up in Ontario, but moved back to California.  Because his wife Margaret Millar became a successful novelist before he did, he experimented with several pseudonyms, settling on Ross Macdonald (much to the disgust of John D. MacDonald, who felt he was being ripped off).

Macdonald was best known for his novels about Lew Archer, a southern California private eye whose cases usually involved deep dark family secrets from which no one could ever escape.  He used clever references to fairy tales (Sleeping Beauty), psychology (The Galton Case), and so on to shape his plots.  Some people found his work overly emotional and others loved it.  One of the latter was the editor of the New York Times Book Review who assigned The Underground Man  to great novelist Eudora Welty. The resulting front page love song put him on the bestseller list from that point on.

The classic P.I. movie Harper was based on the first Archer novel, The Moving Target.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

12/12/1936 The Accusing Corpse

December 12, 1936.  The issue of Detective Fiction Weekly with this date featured "The Accusing Corpse" by Paul Ernst.  You can find it here.

"When a Vaudeville Magician Turns Private Detective -- and When a Pretty Girl is Framed for Murder -- Amazing Events Are Sure to Happen!"

Ernst wrote many stories for the pulp magazines. including more than 20 for Avenger Magazine.

Friday, December 11, 2015

12/11/1980 Magnum PI arrives

December 11, 1980.  This day saw the premiere of one of television's best and most successful private eye series.  Magnum P.I. ran for 162 episodes on CBS.  It even managed to pull a Reichenbach Falls - Tom Selleck's star  character apparently died at the end of the seventh season but popular demand brought him back for one more year of crime-bustin' Hawaii style.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

12/10/1892 A visit to the Black Museum

December 10, 1892.  In the basement of New Scotland Yard in London sat the Black Museum, a collection of relics of true crimes.  It wasn't open to the general public, but on this day three members of a cricket club were permitted in.  One was the editor of The Idler magazine, Jerome K. Jerome, most famous for the comic masterpiece Three Men In A Boat, which inspired Peter Lovesey's mystery Swing, Swing, Together.  The others were friends of his, and  contributors to the magazine.  E.W. Hornung was the creator or Raffles, the first "gentleman cracksman" or hero jewel thief in crime fiction.  This visit led to Hornung's story "The Raffles Relics."

The third member of the party was Hornung's future brother-in-law, a doctor named Arthur Conan Doyle.  Oh yes, he wrote a bit too. 

Jonathan Goodman pointed this event out in The Armchair Detective, in the Fall 1996 issue.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

12/9/1938 Rebecca takes to the airwaves

December 9, 1938.  The premiere of The Campbell Playhouse was the first commercially-sponsored performance by Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre after their infamous dramatization of War of the Worlds, and  the first media presentation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, which was on the bestseller list at the time.  Welles played Mr. DeWinter, Margaret Sullavan played his nameless second wife, and Mildred Natwick was a sufficiently ghastly Mrs. Danvers.

The music was by Bernard Herrmann, who later created the scored for many Alfred Hitchcock films, not including Rebecca.

Tom Nolan, writing in Mystery Scene, gave this production pride of place in his list of ten great old-time radio thrillers.  You can listen to it here.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

12/8/1969 Z is released

December 8, 1969. Had the term docu-drama been invented by 1969?  Probably not.  In any case that is too weak a term for this great movie directed by Costa-Gavras, based on a political assassination that overturned the government of Greece. 
The sense of realism is increased by a clever trick: most of the characters are unnamed.  They are simply the journalist, the general, the prosecutor.  It gives the impression that these are real people, not being named for legal reasons.

For most of the movie we follow the prosecutor as he investigates what he has been told is an accidental death, and we watch his faith in the given narrative collapse, forcing him to choose between his principles and his career.

It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and the Edgar for Best Movie.  And I rewatch it every few years.

Monday, December 7, 2015

12/7/1915 "This Brackett guy" is born

December 7, 1915.  How is it I never heard of Leigh Brackett until Jake Hinkson wrote about her in the spring issue of Mystery Scene?  I probably did hear of her but never got the full picture.  Her first love was science fiction but she found that she couldn't make a living writing it, so she switched to hard-boiled novels.  Her No Good From A Corpse so impressed director Howard Hawks that he decided "this Brackett guy" was the man to adapt Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep for the movies.

So she not only co-scripted (with William freaking Faulkner!) the Bogart-Bacall flick which is on most lists of best private eye movies, but then went on to write  Rio Bravo, and just before she died she wrote the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back.  So she made history in the mystery, western and science fiction genres.

In between  she found time to write episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and The Rockford Files, not to mention Robert Altman's take on Chandler, The Long Goodbye.

There's an old saying that a woman has to be twice as good as a man to succeed in the same job.  Imagine being a female script writer in the forties.  Wow.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

12/6/1958 "What to do with an Ageing Detective"

December 6, 1958.  The issue of Time and Tide with this date had an unusual article by Margaret Allingham.  It was about Albert Campion, which was no surprise.  She had been writing about the aristocratic amateur detective with great success for decades.

What was unusual was that this piece was an interview between the author and her character.  And Albert has a few things to get off his chest, mostly concerned with the fact that he was getting too old to do the kinds of stunts she kept handing him.

"[E]verybody knows how old I am. You saw to that, fixing it as the same age as the century so we shouldn't get muddled."

Allingham was neither the first nor last author to record a chat with a character.  If you don't happen to have a complete run of Time and Tide you can find this one in her book The Return of Mr. Campion: Uncollected Stories.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

12/5/1890 Fritz Lang is born

December 5, 1890.  Fritz Lang was born on this date in Vienna.  He was a great film director.  His classic M, made in Germany and starring Peter Lorre as a serial child murderer, was one of the first film noir movies. His other classics include Metropolis, The Big Heat, and The Testament pf Dr. Mabuse.  The last of these was banned in Nazi Germany, after which he got the hell out.

12/5/1943 The Mysterious Traveler sets out

December 5, 1943.  This date saw (uh, heard) the premiere of the radio show The Mysterious Traveler.  Robert Arthur, Jr. and David P. Kogan wrote the show, following the success of their Dark Destiny.

Each episode began with Maurice Tarplin announcing: "This is The Mysterious Traveler, inviting you to join me on another journey into the strange and terrifying. I hope you will enjoy the trip . . . that it will thrill you a little and chill you a little. So settle back, get a good grip on your nerves, and be comfortable . . . if you can . . . ."

The Mystery Writers of America gave the Mutual Broadcasting System's show an Edgar for best radio drama. 

You can hear some of the episodes here.  Try the most famous one: Behind The Locked Door.

Friday, December 4, 2015

12/4/2012 Killer In The Rye

December 4, 2012.  A Killer In The Rye was published on this date.  It was part of Delia Rosen's Deadly Deli series.  Deli owner Gwen Katz is a suspect when a bakery delivery man is found dead in front of her store.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

12/3/19?? Death and the Compass begins

December 3, 19??.  Jorge Luis Borges was a great Argentinian writer, a creator of what is now known as Magical Realism.  In his early years he believed that a writer needed to create a new world, so some of his "fiction" consisted of biographies of people who never lived, reviews of books that were never written, detailed descriptions of buildings that could never be built.

But he was always interested in detective fiction.  Around his fortieth birthday (midlife crisis?) he wrote three masterful short crime stories: "The Garden of Forking Paths," "The Shape of the Sword," and "Death and the Compass." 

The plot of "Compass" begins on this date and it describes detective Lonnrott trying to solve a series of increasingly bizarre crimes including a dead rabbi, masked harlequins, and a master criminal. 

A casual reader might think this was a standard, if rococo mystery, if the reader failed to notice that in  spite of all the overwhelming details Borges provides about the case and the city, he never even identifies the continent, much less the country.  Weird things are going on...

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

12/2/1988 The Naked Gun is revealed

December 2, 1988.  David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams. the creators of the classic comedy Airplane, made a TV series called Police Squad which was hilarious, but it had a problem.  You actually had to watch it.  If you turned the set on while you read a magazine or knitted, and  just listened, you missed most of the jokes, because they were visual.  For example, two cops get in an elevator at headquarters, discussing the case.  But if you weren't watching you would miss the fact that on one floor the elevator apparently opened onto the diving board of a swimming pool.

So the show died after six episodes.  But the movie The Naked Gun brought back the concept and Leslie Nielsen as detective Frank Drebin.  And now the formula worked.

Tell us about it, Frank:  "Well, you take a chance getting up in the morning, crossing the street, or sticking your face in a fan."

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

12/1/1991 Janet LaPierre invites us to Grandmother's House

December 1, 1991.  Grandmother's House was published on this day, part of Janet LaPierre's series based in the fictional northern California town of Port Silva.  The book is about a thirteen-year-old boy's possible involvement with a group of environmental radicals who want to stop developers.  Publishers Weekly called it "a seductive tale" and "a very enjoyable read."