The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death
By Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead has written mostly fiction prior to this volume, which is an expanded version of a non-fiction piece he wrote for Grantland magazine. Who anted up to send him to the 2011 incarnation of the World Series of Poker. The article and book chronicle his experiences as he tries to ramp up from being a casual player in small stakes home games to playing the WSOP Main Event, arguably the top tournament event in all of poker.

It’s a fairly entertaining look at the author’s adventures in the poker mines but it seems a bit sparse – perhaps that has something to do with that business of it being an expanded article. It was also a bit slim on the actual nuts and bolts of poker. Not that I was expecting a Doyle Brunson-styled treatise of massive length and detail. But it seems that a lot of the nitty-gritty of what it’s like to go from home player to WSOP hopeful has been omitted, particularly in the closing section of the work, when Whitehead actually arrives in Las Vegas and the proceedings get underway. Perhaps I overlooked it but I don’t even recall him mentioning how far into the ranks of the losers he advanced. And no, it’s probably not a spoiler to reveal that he didn’t win the event.

I also can’t help wondering if the author – in finest Woody Allen fashion - exaggerates his anhedonia (a psychological condition characterized by inability to experience pleasure in normally pleasurable acts) just a bit for comic effect. But he’s got a way at turning a witty phrase and gems like “misdemeanor hairdo” will probably stick in my memory banks for a while.

The verdict - it’s a slim volume with a breezy style and if you don’t object to the fact that it could go a little more in-depth about poker it’s probably worth a look.

mystery movie series of 1930s hollywood

mystery movie series of 1930s hollywood
by ron backer

when i started a mystery review site, way back in 1927 (or something like that), i did so because i thought it would be fun to have a record of my thoughts on the mystery fiction i was reading. i wish i'd done it a bit sooner, like before i read the majority of the nero wolfe books, but so be it. at the time mystery cinema wasn't really on my radar but it wasn't all that long before i started to discover some of the great mystery films that came out in the thirties and forties.

which is why i did something i rarely do anymore and that's to request a review copy of a book - mystery movie series of 1930s hollywood. though the name might suggest otherwise it's actually the second volume author ron backer wrote on this topic, after mystery movie series of 1940s hollywood.

and it's great stuff, mind you. i have yet to see the 1940s volume and i hope that i do so one day but this volume is packed to the rafters with more mystery movie series than i had ever imagined could exist. i found the book interesting on two levels. as for as sitting down and reading it, i discovered that i didn't have much use for most of the chapters that covered movies i've never seen. but i found those chapters worthwhile in that they pointed me in the direction of many movies i hadn't previously known about.

backer has done a thorough job with this volume, looking at 22 series and 167 films in all. he essentially does a fairly in-depth review of each of the films, along with plenty of background on the series itself and major figures such as actors, directors, writers and the like. in the case of those films that got their start as novels or stories, he also provides a section on how the film compared to the source material.

which is a pretty impressive piece of work and one that i'd highly recommend to anyone who has an interest in these movies. if you don't have an interest in mystery movies from this era check out a few.

from the table of contents, here are the series that backer covers.

1. philo vance: the upper class detective
2. bulldog drummond: the english adventurer
3. charlie chan: the chinese detective
4. arsene lupin: the gentleman thief
5. hildegarde withers: the teacher detective
6. thatcher colt: the police commissioner
7. inspector trent: the police detective
8. nick and nora charles: the thin man series
9. perry mason: the defense attorney
10. sophie lang: the lady thief
11. sarah keate: the nurse detective
12. torchy blane: the investigative reporter
13. alan o’connor and bobbie reynolds: the federal agents
14. mr. moto: the japanese detective
15. bill crane: the private detective
16. joel and garda sloane: the husband and wife team
17. nancy drew: the teenage detective
18. mr. wong: the other chinese detective
19. barney callahan: the roving reporter
20. brass bancroft: the secret service agent
21. tailspin tommy: the young aviator
22. persons in hiding: the fbi story

the penguin pool murder

the penguin pool murder
based on characters created by stuart palmer

funny how simple the answers are when you know them.
(hildegarde withers)

movies starring stuart palmer's amateur detective hildegarde withers were all the rage during the thirties and this is the one that kicked things off. edna may oliver stars here and in the next two episodes and helen broderick and zasu pitts took over the role for the last three movies of the series. though she is a schoolteacher and a civilian, withers works in tandem with the gruff inspector oscar piper to solve crimes and trade mildly disparaging wisecracks. gleason starred as piper in all six of the withers movies.

these movies were not meant to be taken too seriously and the penguin pool murder is no exception. miss withers just happens to be visiting the aquarium with her students when a gentleman of the lifeless persuasion is found in the penguin pool. we viewers have already seen some of the background leading up to this murder, but there are various twists and turns that keep things hopping until the no-nonsense schoolmarm finally figures it all out. piper, as usual, is a few steps behind, but give him an a for effort anyway.

these are not movies that i really watch for the plotting and this one, which gets off to quite a slow start, was more of the same. when withers and piper get into crime-solving mode and start pecking at each other things perk up considerably. recommended, as are the other three in the series that i've seen thus far, as long as you're not someone who takes your mystery movies too seriously.

granny get your gun - 1940

granny get your gun
based on a story by erle stanley gardner

the obvious attraction with granny get your gun is the fact the story is based on one by erle stanley gardner. apparently it's somewhat loosely based on his perry mason novel, the case of the dangerous dowager, though perry mason is nowhere in sight in the movie. i haven't read the book but it appears the adaptation here is a rather loose one and the wild west theme was added by the filmmakers.

may robson is the star of the show and the granny of the title. her name is actually minerva hatton and she's a wealthy old bird who made her fortune supplying miners in nevada. she plays amateur detective here, but with her bold, no-nonsense approach and her skill with a gun she's a far cry from the dotty old miss marple type.

the whole affair is pretty lighthearted, as so many mysteries of the thirties and forties seem to be. the plot, such as it is, finds hatton trying to find out who bumped off her former son-in-law, who's resorting to some nasty tactics to help win custody of his daughter. hatton takes the rap for the killing at first to protect her daughter, who would otherwise be a prime suspect, and that's about all i'll say about the plot.

not a bad effort and, at a little less than an hour, it can hardly be accused of overstaying its welcome.

the smiling ghost - 1941

movie: the smiling ghost
from a story by stuart palmer

there are a few traces of a mystery in the smiling ghost, but things are played mostly for laughs with a few halfhearted chills tossed into the mix. which doesn’t make for great art but if you can put your brain on hold for an hour or so and take it as it comes you could do a lot worse.

lucky downing's luck has apparently been of the bad variety lately. when we see him at the beginning of the film he's fending off creditors and is therefore quite pleased when a wealthy heiress offers a tidy sum for him to pose as her fiancée for a month. when he gets to the requisite mansion full of eccentric relatives and starts to discover what happened to the heiress's previous fiancées he's not quite so pleased.

and so it goes, through various twists and turns and wacky antics until the baddie is finally revealed. if you're looking for something along the lines of palmer's hildegarde withers adaptations, such as the penguin pool murder or murder on a bridle path, look elsewhere. if you're simply looking for some good old-fashioned silly fun, look here.

the dark house, by george manville fenn - 1885

the dark house: a knot unravelled
by george manville fenn

oh, we get to know a little, sir. we're a body of incompetent men that every one abuses, but we find out a few things a year. (inspector linnett)

a printer, publisher and editor of magazines, george manville fenn later became a prolific writer of children's books, social commentary and more. it wouldn't be completely off the mark to call the dark house mystery fiction, since there is a mystery at the heart of it, but for my money it proceeds more in the manner of a gothic than a whodunit.

as the story opens we're presented with the tried and true convention of relatives and concerned parties gathering at the so-called dark house for the reading of the will of one colonel capel. a very wealthy fellow, the colonel spent a great deal of time abroad, particularly in india, and amassed a big old heap of treasures, curiosities and whatnot. he constructed a sturdy vault in his home where he stored his wealth. following his death that wealth was to be distributed to his heirs with the vault becoming his tomb.

not everyone is happy with the provisions of the will, with the main exception being capel's great-nephew paul, who winds up with most of the loot. before long one of the footmen is found dead in the colonel's room, as is capel's trusted and loyal "hindoo" servant. shortly thereafter the vault is opened and the treasure is found to be missing.

which is where things start to go a bit astray. at this point in the proceedings the reader of mystery fiction is conditioned to expect an amateur detective or police inspector to come upon the scene and work their magic. and while there are various police officers and inspectors roaming about they don't seem to do much and things are made right at the end in spite of their efforts rather than because of them. as for the (temporary) members of the household who had gathered for the reading of the will they seem content to roam around, sleepwalk, bicker and wring their hands to no real purpose.

all of which makes it sound like i didn't like this book much, but i wouldn't go quite that far. fenn actually does a great job, especially early on in the book, of creating a creepy atmosphere. given that i'm a big fan of old dark house type stuff that counts for a lot with me. so while i can't recommend this one unreservedly, i'd go so far as to give it perhaps one thumb up, with the aforementioned caveats in mind.

the casino murder case - 1935

the casino murder case
from a story by s.s. van dine

this cinematic outing finds the esteemed mr. philo vance investigating three cases of attempted murder by poison, one of which is successful, and a shooting which may or may not be a suicide. all of the victims of these crimes are members of a wealthy, eccentric family who own a casino.

i didn't find this one particularly exciting for about the first three-quarters of the movie but things began to kick into gear after that. overall, i'd say i preferred the somewhat more offbeat the dragon murder case to this one.

trivia fans will want to note that the sergeant is played by ted healy, who worked with the three stooges before they hit it big. also on hand, in an uncredited role as an auctioneer, william demarest, later renowned for his role as uncle charley in my three sons.

the dragon murder case - 1934

the dragon murder case
from a novel by s.s. van dine

a man dives into a pool in full view of his companions. he does not surface. the pool is drained, turning up nothing but what appear to be dragon tracks. enter philo vance, a somber district attorney, and a wisecracking police sergeant, who convene to determine exactly what transpired.

this one's good fun all around, in spite of the somewhat farfetched nature of the crime. but then where would the golden age of detection have been without murderers who went to such ridiculous lengths to carry out such complicated crimes?

this actually marked my first exposure to philo vance. i had been meaning to read some of the books prior to seeing it, but those plans fell afoul of the "so many books, so little time" dictum.

the scarab murder case, by s.s. van dine

the scarab murder case
by s.s. van dine

i'm putting a lot of trust in you - you confounded aesthete.
(john markham, to philo vance)

say what you want about philo vance but you can't say that he doesn't have a vast knowledge of pencils (a comment that will make more sense if you've read this book). you could also say that he's a quite unique and distinctive character, one whose adventures were chronicled in twelve novels from 1926 to 1939. many of these made their way to the big screen.

not long ago i decided that it was finally time to experience philo vance in print. i started with the fifth volume in the series simply because i'm a sucker for works that take egyptology as their theme. although the characters here never get any closer to egypt than manhattan (at least not during the course of the novel) this one, as the name suggests, is all about egyptology.

the novel kicks off with the murder of a wealthy new yorker who has backed a number of archaeological expeditions. his body is found in a private museum run by egyptologist dr. mindrum bliss and he's been given a one-way ticket to oblivion courtesy of a nasty knock on the noggin with a weighty statue.

which sounds like a job for philo vance, who is called in to help sort things out, along with the rather inept police and his old friend district attorney markham, who vacillates between deferring to vance and overruling him. as it so happens vance is something of an expert in egyptology and he wastes no opportunity to impart staggering amounts of detail (in those famed footnotes, no less), no matter how irrelevant.

not that vance's irrelevancies are limited to egyptology, mind you. i suspect that he was also an expert in just about everything else under the sun, but having only read this one volume i can't be sure. in any event there's a limited circle of suspects here, mainly the residents of and frequent visitors to the house/museum complex and it's not even forty-eight hours before vance has tied everything up in a nice neat package.

i have to say that i found the print incarnation of philo vance to be not particularly likable but you certainly can't deny that he's a memorable character. as is the case with those other great, memorable and not so likable detectives like sherlock holmes, nero wolfe and hercule poirot, just to name a few. i did find this book quite entertaining and when the to be read pile permits i'm sure i'll be checking out other installments.

sherlock holmes and the case of sabina hall - 1988

sherlock holmes and the case of sabina hall
by l. b. greenwood

i keep telling myself i'm going to catch up on my sherlock holmes. i've read very little thus far and despite my good intentions i keep getting sidetracked into other pursuits. given that gap in my traditional mystery background i recognize that i may be inclined to judge sherlock holmes imitators differently than someone who is acquainted with more of the real deal.

having said all that, i thought that sherlock holmes and the case of sabina hall was quite a fine piece of work. i wasn't able to locate too much information about the author, but what i found indicates that she is (or was) a schoolteacher based in canada. her other holmes knockoffs include sherlock holmes and the thistle of scotland and sherlock holmes and the case of the raleigh legacy.

as the proceedings get underway, watson takes on an assignment to care for an aging tycoon whose miserly tendencies make ebenezer scrooge seem like an okay guy after all. holmes tags along and by the time they arrive at sabina hall, the old coot is goners and quite possibly not by natural causes. his sister-in-law and sole heir turns out to be just as miserly and wastes no time preparing to dispose of the rickety old hall.

the plot thickens, of course, and a few more bodies stack up, but to reveal too much more would be at risk of throwing out spoilers. and it's not really for the plot, serviceable though it was, that i'd recommend this one. where greenwood really shines is in creating an unremittingly bleak atmosphere, with a drafty, rundown old hall located on the forbidding bristol coast, the weather relentlessly awful, and a group of characters that absolutely would not win any congeniality awards.

but i've always been kind of a sucker for this sort of thing, so in this case the author might just have been preaching to the choir.

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mystery house - 1938

mystery house
from a story by mignon g. eberhart

'one of those people downstairs is a homicidal maniac.'

not a bad whodunit, this one, given that the running time is less than an hour. although one the crimes is a locked room mystery that could possibly be said to stretch the bounds of credibility just a bit.

a prominent banker gathers his company officers at his hunting lodge to let them know that he's discovered some financial malfeasance. a short time later he's killed in his locked bedroom and found with a gun in his hand.

the death is officially ruled a suicide but the banker's daughter is not buying that. she reconvenes the guests at the hunting lodge and invites detective lance o'leary to sort the mess out. which he does, but not before the body count rises and a number of red herrings are scattered in his path.

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the alfred hitchcock hour: an unlocked window

an unlocked window
the alfred hitchcock hour

i'm a sucker for anything in the haunted house and old dark house realm so i was intrigued by the blurb for this episode of the alfred hitchcock hour, which is currently airing on the encore suspense channel. an unlocked window is adapted from a story by ethel lina white. her 1936 novel, the wheel spins, was made into the 1938 hitchcock film, the lady vanishes.

an unlocked window is pretty much dripping with old dark houseness and the house itself, or at least the exteriors, should look very familiar to anyone who's ever seen hitchcock's original version of psycho. the action is, for the most part, confined to said house, in which a pair of nurses are tending to a bedridden patient. also on hand, the man and wife in charge of keeping the household running.

the key issue here, from the viewpoint of the nurses, is that there's been a rash of killings lately and the victims have all been, well...nurses. while a storm rages outside the inhabitants of the house batten down the hatches and lock the place up tight (with one obvious exception) in hopes of keeping themselves safe.

given the way things are structured this is really more of a suspense tale than a whodunit but the former quality is in no short supply. there's also plenty of rain and bushes lashing the windows, thunder and lightning and a strategically timed power outage to enhance the general creepiness and tension.

this episode was redone twenty years later during a short-lived revamp of the hitchcock series. i have yet to see it but i can't imagine how it could possibly improve on the original.

shadow of doubt - 1935

shadow of doubt
from a story by arthur somers roche

not to be confused with the much more popular hitchcock film, shadow of a doubt, which came along eight years later, shadow of doubt rolled out during the heyday of comic mystery cinema, in 1935. i've become a big fan of these movies but i didn't even realize that this one fell into that category until i started watching.

even then i didn't realize that this was a comic mystery, given that it gets off to a rather slow start. fortunately, i wasn't in a particularly impatient mood on this particular day and so i stuck with it and it wasn't long before things began to pick up considerably.

shadow of doubt stars ricardo cortez as sim sturdevant and viriginia bruce as his main squeeze, actress trenna plaice. it's not too far along into the proceedings before they've both become suspects - along with a few others - in the murder of a thoroughly unlikable playboy type, movie producer len haworth. before long sim's wealthy old aunt melissa decides she's going to leave her home for the first time in about a quarter of a century and get to the bottom of the mess.

which is where things really start to pick up. early on, aunt melissa is a rather formidable presence but nothing to write home about. when she slips in private detective mode things turn decidedly zany and the patient viewer is rewarded for toughing it out through the early bits.

the obvious comparison here is to edna may oliver, the best of the three actresses who played hildegarde withers in the various adaptations of stuart palmer's fiction. aunt melissa obviously has a bit more of a nest egg than palmer's withers, a schoolteacher, but they are both sturdy women of a certain age who are not particularly inclined to put up with any crap from anyone. i kept waiting for aunt melissa to lash out and belt someone with the cane she carries everywhere, but as to whether she actually does, you'll have to see for yourself.

cortez also turns in a great performance and there are outstanding supporting roles from regis toomey as a gossip columnist and ivan f. simpson as aunt melissa's long-suffering and always deadpan butler (who's racked up a debt of $78,000 playing cards with her over the course of the decades).

as for the plot, it's serviceable enough, but nothing special, as is so often the case with these flicks. which is to be expected and it really doesn't detract from the film's overall greatness. i'd rank shadow of doubt right up there with the best of the palmer movies, the thin man series and any of the others of those great comic mysteries of yesteryear. don't miss it.

here's a rather entertaining contemporary review from the new york times.