Sunday, January 31, 2016

1/31/1963 Bette Davis plays Perry Mason?

January 31, 1963.  So if you turned on The Adventures of Perry Mason in the 1950s or 1960s, what actor would you see playing a brilliant defense attorney?

If you said Raymond Burr you would usually be correct.  But not on this night.  Burr had to go in for minor surgery and so different actors playing different lawyers stood in for him for a month.  And the first was none other than Bette Davis, as Constant Doyle.  The  other stand-ins, by the way, were Michael Rennie, Hugh O’Brian, and Walter Pidgeon.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

1/30/2009. Taken is released.

January 30, 2009.  On this date the movie Taken was released in the United States.  It involves some kidnappers who chose to grab what is clearly the wrong man's daughter.  Liam Neeson became an action hero, playing the retired CIA agent/father who gets quite understandably irritated with the bad guys.

"I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you."

Friday, January 29, 2016

1/29/1909 Harold Q. Masur is born

January 29, 1909.  Harold Q.Masur was born on this date in New York City.  He was an attorney and the author of more than ten mystery novels, mostly about lawyer Scott Jordan.

"The sole serious fault in the novels of Harold Q. Masur is their infrequency."  -Anthony Boucher.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

1/28/1981 The Absence of Emily is noticed.

January 28, 1981.  The issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine bearing this date had Jack Ritchie's phizzog on the cover and one of his best stories inside.  "The Absence of Emily" was narrated by a man whose second wife has disappeared.  His sister-in-law is keenly aware of that - and of the suspicious death of his first wife.  But things are much more complicated -and funnier -- than it seems.

The story brought Ritchie a well-deserved Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and was later made into a short film.

Milwaukee's Ritchie was one of the greatest authors of humorous short mysteries.  Another of his tales, "The Green Heart," became the movie A New Leaf, and later, a Broadway musical.  He died a year after winning his Edgar.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

1/27/2006 The Matador appears

January 27, 2006. A very strange, very funny,  crime/buddy movie premiered today.  The Matador is about a hard-luck businessman (Greg Kinnear) in Mexico City for a last chance to save his business and possibly his marriage.  He meets an over-the-hill hit man (Pierce Brosnan), trying to scrape together the nerve for one more assassination.  Can these two guys help each other?  And if they do, can they survive what comes next?

I'll bet you don't guess the ending.

I need a break. There's no retirement home for assassins is there? Archery at four. Riflery at five. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

1/26/1987 Mathnet: To Cogitate and to solve

January 26, 1987.  On this date PBS premiered Square One, a show that was aimed at middle school students, the very age group that starts losing their interest in math.  Part of each episode was a serial called Mathnet, in which mathematicians working for the Los Angeles Police Department solve crimes with geometry, probability, and other such skills.

It was, in fact, a very clever parody of Dragnet.  The Mystery Writers of America gave it an Edgar nomination in 1991, for my favorite episode "The Case of the Swami Scam".  That one was based on actual con game involving predicting the winners of  sports events.   And you can watch it right here.

Monday, January 25, 2016

1/25/1874 W. Somerset Maugham arrives

January 25, 1874.  W. Somerset Maugham was born today and began leading a very interesting life.  He studied to be a doctor but when his first novel was a hit he dropped medicine immediately.  During World War I he was one of the "literary ambulance drivers," along with Ernest Hemingway and E.E. Cummings, among others.  Between ambulance runs he proofread his novel Of Human Bondage.

Later he was recruited as a British spy, working in Switzerland and in Russia, just before the Bolshevik conquest.  He also lived for a while in the Pacific, writing about the British and their conflicts with the residents of their empire.

But the main reason he appears on this page is a novel-in-stories called Ashenden, or the British Agent (1928), which is considered a classic of spy fiction.  Some of the stories served as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's movie Secret Agent.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

1/24/1941 High Sierra premieres

January 24, 1941.  This date saw the release of Raoul Walsh's classic flick High Sierra.   John Huston and W.R. Burnett wrote the script, based on Burnett's novel.  Humphrey Bogart starred as ex-con Roy Earle planning to rob a California resort.  Ida Lupino played the love interest.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

1/23/1992 Dell buys Queen and Hitchcock

January 23, 1992.  On this date Bantam Doubleday Dell purchased Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock;s Mystery Magazine, and two science fiction magazines.  Twenty-plus years later EQMM and AHMM remain the strongest magazines in the field.

Friday, January 22, 2016

1/22/1924 Tony Rome was born in a day. This one.

January 22, 1924.  Marvin Albert was born on this day.  He wrote mysteries and westerns under several names but is probably best known for the books about private eye Tony Rome, which he wrote under the name Anthony Rome.  Two of them were filmed with Frank Sinatra in the starring role.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

1/21/1992 The Black Echo sounds

January 21, 1992.  This date saw the publication of The Black Echo, the first novel in Michael Connelly's highly successful series about L.A. cop Harry Bosch.  It won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

1/20/2008 Breaking Bad breaks

January 20, 2008.  Today was the premiere of AMC's show about a high school chemistry teacher with cancer  who chooses an alternative career as a meth maker to provide his family with future funds.  Breaking Bad  ran for five season and won sixteen Emmys (in 58 nominations).  The season finale was watched by more than ten million people. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

1/19/1921 Patricia Highsmith is born

January 19, 1921.  Patricia Highsmith was born on this date in Fort Worth, Texas.  Her best known novels are the five books about the villainous Tom Ripley, and Strangers On A Train.  A lot of  them were made into movies, including that classic directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Her classic novel of lesbian romance The Price of Salt, was just made into the movie Carol, which came out last year.

One person who knew her described Highsmith as "a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person."  But she sure could write.

Monday, January 18, 2016

1/18/1985 The Coen brothers go Blood Simple

January 18, 1985.  Two amazing cinematic careers started on this day when Joel and Ethan Coen's first movie - directed by Joel and written by both - was released.

A rich man hires a private eye to kill his wife and her lover, but this is Coen territory and nothing goes as planned.  The movie has what might be the best last line of a crime flick since John Huston kicked Hammett out in favor of Shakespeare in The Maltese Falcon.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

1/17/1921 Thomas B. Chastain is born

January 17, 1921.  Thomas B. Chastain was born on this day.  He wrote a number of mystery novels including one of the most successful gimmick books of the 1980s.  Who Killed The Robins Family?  did not include the solution.  Readers were invited to answer a series of questions and the one who came closest won $10,000.  The book sold over a million copies.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

1/16/1973 Spenser swaggers in

January 16, 1973.  This day saw the publication of Robert B. Parker's first novel, The Godwulf Manuscript.  It introduced Boston private eye Spenser.  Kirkus Reviews compared the new guy to Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and sniffed "there's some of the toughness and the terseness but the hat's much too big for him and it hasn't got the right slouch."

Yet somehow, Spenser has survived. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

1/22/1924 Rome was born in a day. This one.

1/15/1965 A big fish comes to the brownstone

January 15, 1965.  On this day Nero Wolfe wrapped up one of his greatest and most controversial cases, in The Doorbell Rang.  Fans of Rex Stout knows that the book ends with a certain "big fish" coming for a visit.

The book, in which the fat private eye battles the FBI, made Stout more popular than ever, but not with everyone.  John Wayne read it and sent him a note: "Goodbye."

Thursday, January 14, 2016

1/14/1994 What's A Girl Gotta Do? gets done

January 14, 1994.  This day saw the publication of What's A Girl Gotta Do?  It was the first novel by Canadian author Sparkle Hayter, about reporter Robin Hudson.  Kirkus Review, in one of its frequent moments of incoherence declared: "The dialogue reads like a string of Percodan lunches, but Robin's seen-it-all naivete makes this an appealing debut."

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

1/13/1987 David Mamet wastes a weekend on Hill Street

January 13, 1987.  I thought this was going to be a fairly straightforward entry.  Ha.  I spent more time researching this entry than I spent on the whole month of December, I think.

Imagine you are the producer of a TV show.  Now imagine a Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright offers to write an episode for you.  What do you do?

If you aren't an idiot you say, hell yes.  That's what the producers of Hill Street Blues did when David Mamet made his pitch.  At the time he was married to Lindsay Crouse who occasionally appeared on the show as Officer Kate McBride.

Naturally, "A Wasted Weekend," which premiered on this date, was not a typical episode.  Instead of showing the fifteen or more regulars on a day's patrol, it offered three incidents of cops coming face to face with issues of life, death, and duty.

One story involves Officers Hill, Renko and retired Sergeant Jablonski (played by Robert Prosky, a favorite Mamet actor) on a hunting trip.   "They're going to kill Bambi," says Sergeant Bates in disgust.  

Henry Goldblume, expert hostage negotiator, finds himself bargaining for his own life when he is kidnapped by a fugitive who demands he dig his own grave.

The most important story, naturally, is about Kate McBride...

Let's pause there for a moment.  In 1990 David Mamet published the book 5 Television Plays, which included "A Wasted Weekend," the only script in the set which actually got filmed.  ("Television executives are the worst people I have ever met in my life," Mamet explains.)  But this version of the script leaves out the entire Kate McBride story.  Scholar Steve Ryan asked him about the gap and the author replied "Beats the heck out of me."  I don't know the reason either, but I will point out that 5 Televison Plays was published the same year Mamet and Crouse divorced.
 In the filmed version, Officer McBride receives a medal for killing an armed robber, and, not surprisingly, she feels conflicted about it.  The only cop from the Hill who shows up at the awards ceremony is Norm Buntz, played by the magnificent Dennis Franz, who gives her about five years of therapy in one boozy night in a barroom.

Buntz: You did something that few people in this world do... You stood up to another human being in combat where it was his life or yours, and you're the one who walked away.  The guilty secret is it is the greatest exhilaration that it is possible to know.   Society says 'you go and feel contrite'... but deep down inside you say  this, 'My God, I'm afraid I liked it.'

McBride (eventually): Norm, I liked it.

Buntz: That's what you think, you dumb fool.

"A Wasted Weekend" is credited with boosting Hill Street Blues popularity and critical cred in its last season. You can find a version of the episode on Youtube, but don't bother. It has part of the McBride sequence, but the recording is missing about ten crucial minutes.  Very weird...

Some of this came from: Ryan, Steve.  "David Mamet's 'A Wasted Weekend,'" American Drama. 2001.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

1/12/1943 Shadow of a Doubt released

January 12, 1943.  On this date Shadow of a Doubt was released.  It was a classic Alfred Hitchcock movie: Charlie (Teresa Wright) is a teenage girl in a small California and she's thrilled when her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) comes to town.  The only problem is, he might be a serial killer...

Monday, January 11, 2016

1/11/1936 When Raymond met Dashiell

January 11, 1936.  As J.Kingston Pierce wrote: "We now think of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as being joined at the literary hip," but the fact is that these two authors met only once.  This was the date, at a luncheon in Los Angeles, celebrating contributors to Black Mask Magazine. 

Hammett was essentially washed up by that point, having written all the novels he would ever finish.  Chandler - the older man - had only published short stories so far.

Other still-remembered pulp masters at that meal included Norbert Davis, Dwight Babcock, and Horace McCoy.  You can see a photo of the event here.

"Everything goes back to Saint Hammett and Saint Chandler.” - Larry Kleinfeld

Sunday, January 10, 2016

1/10/1999 The Sopranos start singing

January 10, 1999.  On this day  one of HBO's greatest hits began.  The Sopranos was the first cable show to be nominated for the Emmy for best drama - and it was nominated every year it was on.  It received 111 nominations over all and won 21 of them.  Then producer David Chase wrote a final episode that ticked every off.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

1/9/1992 A cat moves a mountain

January 9, 1992.  This date saw the publication of The Cat Who Moved A Mountain.  This was Lilian Jackson Braun's thirteenth novel about journalist Jim Quilleran and his crime-solving Siamese cats.Publishers Weekly called it " a lively, witty tale bolstered by sharply etched characters."

Friday, January 8, 2016

1/8/1824 WIlkie Collins is born

January 8, 1824.  Wilkie Collins was born on this day in London. His novels The Woman In White and The Moonstone bridged the gap between gothic novels and mysteries and are usually ranked among the first detective fiction.

In 1889 he disappeared into his beard and was never seen again.  Sorry, I made that part up.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

1/7/1939 The Golden Age of Detective Fiction is coined

January 7, 1939.  "The Golden Age of Detective Fiction" is the phrase most often used to describe the detective fiction of the 1920s and 1930s.  The term was apparently coined by John Strachey in an  article in The Saturday Review that appeared on this date. 

I found this out in Martin Edwards' excellent book The Golden Age of Murder.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

1/6/1927 Franklin W. Dixon signs up

January 6, 1927.  Chances are you never heard of Leslie McFarlane, but he helped create two characters who influenced millions of mystery readers, and quite a few readers.  On this day the young Canadian signed a contract to write the first volumes of a new series for the book-packaging giants known as the Stratemeyer Syndicate.  He wrote most of the first thirty Hardy Boys novels, always under the name Franklin W. Dixon.  He got paid less than one hundred bucks a book, but he left quite a trail of fans behind him.

Main source: Cornelius, Michael G.  Nancy Drew and Her Sister Sleuths.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

1/5/1921 Friedrich Durrenmatt is born

January 5, 1921.  Friedrich Durrenmatt was born this day in Switzerland.  When his first play premiered in 1947 there were fist fights in the audience.  He wasn't afraid of controversy.

Among his most famous crime-related novels were The Judge and His Hangman and The Pledge.  Sean Penn turned the latter into an excellent movie with Jack Nicholson.

Monday, January 4, 2016

1/4/1987 Burgess on Holmes

January 4, 1987.  On this day the cover of the New York Times Book Review featured an essay by famed novelist Anthony Burgess.  "The Sainted Sleuth, Still on the Case," was a love song to Sherlock Holmes.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

1/3/1960 Man From The South

January 3, 1960.  Alfred Hitchcock.  Roald Dahl.  Steve McQueen.  Peter Lorre. 

How's that for a line-up?

On this day Alfred Hitchcock Presents offered "Man From The South," based on a short story by Roald Dahl.  McQueen plays a gambler who meets a strange man (Lorre, of course) who offers a bizarre bet: If McQueen's cigarette lighter lights ten times in a row, he wins the man's car; if it doesn't Lorre will cut off the gambler's finger.  Creepy?  Oh yeah...

You can see it here.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

1/2/1920 Isaac Asimov celebrates his birthday

January 2, 1920.  Isaac Asimov, admitted he was not sure of the date of his birth.  It occurred in Russia, the Jewish and Julian calendars clashed, etc.  But this was the latest possible date it could have been, so this was the one he chose to celebrate.  Who are we to argue?

You might want to argue about what a science fiction writer is doing on this page, but more fool you.  Here is Asimov explaining the origin of one of his classic novels: "[Editor John] Campbell had often said that a science fiction mystery story was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated. I sat down to write a story that would be a classic mystery and that would not cheat the reader — and yet would be a true science-fiction story. The result was The Caves Of Steel."  It is considered one of the great science fiction mysteries.

Here on Earth the good Doctor wrote A Whiff of Death, Murder at the ABA,  and The Union Club Mysteries. But he is perhaps best remembered my mystery fans for his salute to Agatha Christie's Jane Marple, namely the Black Widowers stories.  In each story a distinguished group of men sit down to dinner with a guest who (inevitably) has a puzzle on his mind.  These are "least likely detective" tales.  After the brilliant minds eliminate the obvious solutions Henry the waiter (as humble as Miss Marple) deduces the solution.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Summing up the year

January 1 begins the second year of Today in MYSTERY HISTORY.  I hope you've enjoyed it and maybe learned something.  Just for fun, here is a list of all the authors who received at least two mentions here in 2015.   The usual suspects, mostly. 

And, hey, if you want to support this blog, you could go HERE and consider buying something.

Margaret Allingham
Lawrence Block
Jorge Luis Borges
John Buchan
John Dickson Carr
Raymond Chandler
Leslie Charteris
Agatha Christie
Arthur Conan Doyle
Dick Francis
Sue Grafton
Martha Grimes
Dashiell Hammett
Tony Hillerman
Chester Himes
Alfred Hitchcock
Roy Huggins
Shirley Jackson
Carolyn Keene
Stieg Larsson
Elmore Leonard
Robert Lopresti
John D. MacDonald
Ross Macdonald
Ross McBain
John Mortimer
Edgar Allan Poe
Ellery Queen
Rex Stout
Jim Thompson
Donald E. Westlake

1/1/1952 Orson Welles opens the Black Museum

January 1, 1952.  On this day Mutual Broadcasting System began a new radio series, the brain child of Orson Welles.  Each episode of The Black Museum offered what was supposed to be a fictionalized version of the story of an actual item in the famous collection of crime material in the basement of Scotland Yard.  The episodes had titles like "Straight Razor," "The Bath Tub," and "A Can of Weed-killer."  You get the idea.

The show ran for  a year.  You can hear episodes of it here.