Tuesday, February 28, 2017

2/28/1894 Stop the presses! Ben Hecht is born

February 28, 1894.  Ben Hecht was born on this date in New York City.  He was considered one of the greatest Hollywood screenwriters.  He actually won the first Oscar for screenwriting, with a crime movie called Underworld.  Looking back ninety years it seems like the most memorable thing about that flick is the nicknames of the characters: Weed, Rolls Royce, Feathers, Buck, and Slippy.  Four years later he wrote Scarface.

His greatest achievement related to the crime field may be The Front Page, a screwball comedy co-authored with Charles MacArthur, which was a Broadway hit and has been filmed three times, four if you count Switching Channels.  It is the story of Hildy Johnson, a reporter about to quit in favor or a respectable job, who meets an escaped convict, a man sentenced to be executed ondubious grounds.  Hildy needs help from his editor, a manipulator who will do anything to keep his star reporter on the job.

Hecht's many other credits include several Hitchcock movies.  Among the ones for which he received a screen credit: Notorious and Spellbound.


Monday, February 27, 2017

2/27/1995 American Tabloid is published

February 27, 1995.  This date saw the publication of American Tabloid, James Ellroy's novel which Kirkus Reviews described as a " lurid, volcanic historical epic."  It involves J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, Jimmy Hoffa, John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby, and a plot to catch JFK with a call girl, among other things.  Time called it one of the best books of the year.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

2/26/1922 The Presence of Jack Ritchie

February 26, 1922.  One of the truly great authors of humorous short mysteries was born on this date in Milwaukee, a city where many of his works were set.  His greatest character was Henry Turnbuckle, a police detective whose unearned self-confidence was matched by his bad luck.  You see, Henry read all the crime novels and expected reality to conform to its cliches.  But in a Turnbuckle story if two of the suspects are identical twins that will turn out to have nothing to do with the solution.  And in one story after Henry gloriously announces the identity of the killer the assembled suspects not only proves him wrong but then conclude that the killer was someone else - a person no one had ever mentioned to Henry at all.

Another great Ritchie character was Cardula, a private eye who happens to be a vampire.

He also invented (or at least perfected) a subgenre I call the Unknown Narrator, where the reader knows nothing about the main character except what other people say about him, which turns out to be dramatically wrong.  One example is "The Absence of Emily," which won him an Edgar.

But Ritchie;s biggest success may have been "The Green Heart," which begins "We had been married three months and I rather thought it was time to get rid of my wife."  This tale of a would-be homicidal husband was made into the movie A New Leaf, and later into a Broadway play.

Ritchie's curse was that he was a master of the short when audiences demanded long.  As Donald E. Westlake said, he was, "a miniaturist in the age of elephantiasis."

Saturday, February 25, 2017

2/25/1981 EQMM is forty

February 25, 1981.  The issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine with this cover date celebrated the fortieth anniversary of that great institution.  It featured stories by Ruth Rendell, Simon Brett, Michael Gilbert, James Holding, and (of course) Edward D. Hoch, among others.

Friday, February 24, 2017

2/24/1964 A Right to Die is claimed

February 24, 1964.  Rex Stout's A Right to Die begins on this date when an African-American anthropologist named Paul Whipple asks Nero Wolfe to prove his son did not commit a murder.  Obviously it was Stout's opportunity to comment on the civil rights movement, but some fans think it is one of his less successful books because of a tactical error the author made.

You see, Paul Whipple appeared in Too Many Cooks as a college student.  Decades later, here he is with a grown son, and Wolfe and Archie haven't aged a day.  Whipple should have demanded to search their attic for mysterious paintings.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

2/23/1993 Murder in Mellingham

February 23, 1993.  This date saw the release of Murder in Mellingham, the first novel in Susan Oleksiw's series about a small town on the New England coast.  Publishers' Weekly said "Oleksiw's mystery starts slowly, and her upper-class suspects are somewhat stodgy, but the ordinary citizens of Mellingham--the cops, the restaurant owners and lifeguards--are acutely, affectionately rendered."

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

2/22/1952 Five Fingers open

February 22, 1952.  On this day the movie Five Fingers premiered.  James Mason starred in a story of espionage in Turkey during World War II.  It was based on Operation Cicero, a book by Ludwig Carl Moyzisch, which told the true story of Elyesa Bazna, a Nazi spy who  worked as valet to the British ambassador.

It was nominated for two Oscars (Best Director and Best Screenplay).  The MWA gave it the Edgar for Best Motion Picture.  I've never seen it.  Have you?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

2/21/1864 Leonard Merrick appears

February 21, 1864.  You have probably never heard of Leonard Merrick, who was born on this date.  That fact would surprise his fellow Victorians, who greatly admired his work.  J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, called him a "novelist's novelist."

His first novel was a detective story, Mr. Bazalgette's Agent.  His other works included The Worldlings, a psychological crime novel.  His novels, stories, and plays have inspired more than ten movies.

Monday, February 20, 2017

2/20/1989 Gideon Oliver on TV

February 20, 1989.  ABC's Mystery Movie series had some great shows: Columbo and Kojak, for example.  Gideon Oliver, which premiered on this day, was none of them.

It was based, loosely, on Aaron Elkins' series of books about a physical anthropologist, i.e. the skeleton detective.  But TV's Oliver (played by a wasted Lou Gossett, Jr.) was more of a general anthropologist, dealing with cults and tongs.  The result was not good.

Here is part of what reviewer Richard Meyers said in The Armchair Detective:

"I can imagine Aaron [Elkins] visiting Hollywood, nudging his lovely wife Charlotte, and going, 'Isn't that Gideon Oliver's femur over there?  Isn't that his sternum?'
"Gideon Oliver  is dead.  Long live Gideon Oliver."

Sunday, February 19, 2017

2/19/1926 Ross Thomas hits the scene

February 19, 1926.  Ross Thomas was born on this day in Oklahoma City.  His The Cold War Swap won the Edgar for Best First Novel.  Thomas wrote about con men, spies, and borderline honest folks, and you couldn't usually tell the difference.

His best-loved characters included Artie Wu and Quincy Durant, definitely of the conman variety, but basically good guys. Also Mac and Padillo, past and maybe present agents. And under the name Oliver Bleeck he wrote about Philip St. Ives, who worked as a go-between between thieves and owners/insurers.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

2/18/1937 Busman's Honeymoon

February 18, 1937.  This was the publication date for Busman's Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers' last novel about Lord Peter Wimsey and his gal pal Harriet Vane.  Okay, his newlywed wife. It orignated as a play Sayers co-wrote.

She had already run Lord Peter through ten novels and was clearly ready to write something more important, like the theology books her fans had been clamoring for.  Or maybe they hadn't.

Friday, February 17, 2017

2/17/1900 Lawrence Blochman arrives

February 17, 1900.  Lawrence G. Blochman was a child of  a brand-new century.   He wrote more that fifty books, many of them mystery novels.  His short story "Diagnosis: Homicide," won the Edgar in 1951.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

2/16/2007 Breach opens

February 16, 2007.  This was the premiere date for Breach,  a chilling elspionage movie based on the true story of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, convicted of selling secrets to the Soviets.  Chris Cooper was stunning as the bad guy.

One might propose that I am either insanely brave or quite insane. I'd answer neither. I'd say, insanely loyal. Take your pick. There's insanity in all the answers.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

2/15/1937 Fletch's father is born

February 15, 1937.  Gregory McDonald was born on this date in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.  He achieved his greatest fame as the invention of an ethically-challenged reporter named Irwin Maurice Fletcher.

AKA Fletch.  Fletch won the Edgar for Best First Mystery; Confess, Fletch win for Best Paperback Mystery, the only time a novel and its immediate sequel both received Edgars.

The plot of Fletch was a one-of-a-kind high concept strike of genius: a millionaire hires a homeless beach bum to kill him (he's terminally ill, or so he says), not realizing the bum is actually a reporter.  The Chevy Chase movie screwed up the plot thoroughly, by the way, but I am sure it made McDonald a lot of money.  Good. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

2/14/1991 The lambs shut up

February 14, 1991.  Happy Valentines' Day!  With its typical quirky sense of humor Hollywood celebrated the cuddliest holiday with a touching story of the burgeoning relationship between a cadet FBI agent and a madman/serial killer/genius.

The Silence of the Lambs  is a hell of a movie.  Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Adapted  Screenplay...

Oh, and since we are all about writing: Screenplay by Ted Tally, working pretty faithfully from the novel by Thomas Harris.

Monday, February 13, 2017

2/13/1903 Simenon arrives

February 13, 1903.  Georges Simenon was born in Li├Ęge, Belgium on this day.  He wrote almost 200 novels, including more than seventy about French policeman Jules Maigret, one of the most popular detectives in literature. My favorite line from M. Simenon:  “Novel finished. I re-enter life.”

Sunday, February 12, 2017

2/12/1931 van de Wetering is born

February 12, 1931.  Janwillem van de Wetering was born on this date in Rotterdam.  He died in Maine in 2008.  In between he discovered Buddhism and wrote a lot of popular books.

Many of them were mysteries and involved Amsterdam cops named Grijpstra and de Gier.  He received the French Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere in 1984.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

2/11/1995 Blackwater Spirits rise

February 11, 1995.  Miriam Grace Monfredo's third historical mystery was published on this date.  Blackwater Spirits featured Glynis Tryon, 19th-century librarian in Seneca Falls, NY, in a case involving a poisoned farmer and Native Americans.  Kirkus Reviews said: "More densely imagined, satisfying historical fare whose proto-feminist spin feels just right."

Friday, February 10, 2017

2/10/1861 Varick Vanardy arrives

February 10, 1861.  Frederick van Rensselaer Dey was born in Watkins Glen, New York, beating the Civil War by two months.  He wrote more than one thousand Nick Carter thrillers, all under pseudonyms.

Using the pseudonym Varick Vanardy he wrote many pulp short stories about a character called the Night Wind, alias Bingham Harvard, a bank clerk framed for theft.  Don't you hate it when that happens?  The stories are available in collections from Wildside Press.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

2/9/1993 Death by Station Wagon

February 9, 1993.  This is the publication date for Death by Station Wagon, Jon Katz's first novel about suburban detective, Kit Deleeuw who became a house-husband and sleuth after being laid off from a Wall Street job.

Publishers' Weekly  loved everything except the title: "Suburbia has rarely looked so perilous as in this ultimately exhilarating mystery, with its utterly believable, uniquely modern hero."

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

2/8/1976 You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me?

February 8, 1976. This date saw the release of a  classic crime movie, Taxi Driver, starring Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster.  Paul Schrader wrote and Martin Scorsese directed this tale of a Vietnam vet turned hack who goes nuts in the Big Apple.  It was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

2/7/1812 The Dickens you say

February 7, 1812.  This day saw the birth of one of the most popular, prolific, and influential authors in British history.  Influential?  We still expect Christmas to be snowy because London was covered in the white stuff on December 25th (unusually) every year of Dickens' childhood, and that's the way he wrote it.

What does Charles Dickens have to do with our field?  Well, he certainly created some memorable crooks.  Fagan and the Artful Dodger leap to mind.  But Bleak House includes a murder investigation conducted by Inspector Bucket, one of the first detectives in literature.

And, of course, there is The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which is eternally fascinating because Dickens died leaving it unfinished.  A mystery with no solution does tend to attract attention.

Monday, February 6, 2017

2/6/1947 The Brasher Doubloon turns up

February 6, 1947.  The Brasher Doubloon premiered on this day.  The movie was based on Raymond Chandler's The High Window.  George Montgomery starred as private eye Philip Marlowe.

Film critic Dennis Schwartz said it was: "just smart enough of a film noir to be considered a classic."

Sunday, February 5, 2017

2/5/1915 Margaret Millar in view

February 5, 1915.  Margaret Millar was born on this date in Kitchener, Ontario.  She wrote more than twenty novels, including the Edgar Award-winning  Beast in  View.  The Mystery Writers of America named her Grand Master in 1983.  H.R.F. Keating called her "surely one of late twentieth-century crime fiction's best writers."

Saturday, February 4, 2017

2/4/1911 The Locked Bag opens

February 4, 1911.  The issue of Saturday Evening Post with this cover date featured a courtroom tale called "The Locked Bag."  Melville Davisson Post wrote a lot of fiction, and created two famous characters: a sneaky New York lawyer named Rnadolph Mason, and a rural sleuth named Uncle Abner.

This story belongs to neither series.  You can read it here.

Friday, February 3, 2017

2/3/1993 Death Watch is held

February 3, 1993.  On this day Cynthia Harrod-Eagles' second novel about London copper Bill Slider was published.  Death Watch features the murder by fire of a nasty travelling salesman.  The New York Times said: "A lively and witty writer. Integrating romance and suspense with the same artful grace she achieved in her first mystery, the author is well on her way to an outstanding series."

Thursday, February 2, 2017

2/2/1908 RIchard Wormser hits the scene

February 2, 1908.  Richard Wormser was born in New York City on this date.  He became a prolific author of mysteries and westerns.  His last novel, The Invader, won the Edgar Award in 1973.

I think it did.  Well, it definitely did.  But was it his?  Some sources say it was his last book and others say it was the first book by another Richard Wormser, born in New York in 1933, and best known for The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow.  Thematically it seems like The Invader probably belongs to Richard the First, don't you think?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

2/1/1994 THE Woman Waltzes

February 1, 1994.  This date saw the publication of Irene's Last Waltz, Carole Nelson Douglas's fourth novel about Irene Adler, the only woman to ever outsmart Sherlock Holmes.  The plot involves the Queen of Bohemia and a possible golem-outbreak in Prague.  Oh, and two murders in London.

Kirkus Reviews said "Beneath the relentless infatuation with its intrepid heroine, this is the best--luckily, since it's also by far the longest--of Irene's adventures to date."