Saturday, December 31, 2011

Movie: The Lone Wolf Takes a Chance

The Lone Wolf Takes a Chance
Based on characters created by Louis Joseph Vance

Quite a wild ride, this installment of The Lone Wolf series. At times it felt like someone had taken a few Three Stooges shorts and spliced them together, replaced Moe, Larry and Curly with The Lone Wolf, aka Michael Lanyard, and his valet Jamieson, and tossed in some mystery elements. Which is not a criticism, mind you. As wacky and chaotic as this one was I actually liked it quite a bit.

Things get underway with a great comic scene involving a cat, a necklace and our pair of protagonists. It has little bearing on what follows but that's alright. Before long a kidnapping is tossed into the mix and there's a murder right outside Lanyard's apartment. There's a little more to the latter crime than what I've said but I won't spoil it by elaborating. In any event, circumstances combine to point the finger at Lanyard for the murder and he takes it upon himself to do some detecting in order to save his neck.

Turns out it all has to do with a gang of baddies who are trying to get their hands on some engraving plates used to print money. Hence the kidnapping of an inventor who came up with a high-security train car to ship the plates. Lanyard and Jamieson find themselves on the train but the bad guys succeed in convincing the police that they're upstanding citizens, to Lanyard's detriment.

After our heroes narrowly escape the police the action moves to an old dark house where the criminals have holed up and things take a decidedly Stooge-like turn. The crooks slip off yet again and this time Lanyard must charter a private plane to chase down the train and finally bring them to justice.

Of the three Lone Wolf movies I've seen thus far I'd venture to say that this was the most overtly comical of the bunch. It contains a lot of gags that would qualify as just plain slapstick and yet there's still an element of suspense to the proceedings, right in the midst of all the silliness. Look for Lloyd Bridges as the inventor, in one of his earliest movie roles.

For another perspective on this one, try this article at TCM's site. As it notes, this was the fifth of nine Lone Wolf movies for star Warren William, who previously played such roles as Philo Vance and Perry Mason.

Here's what the New York Times reviewer had to say about it back in the day.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Death on Demand, by Carolyn G. Hart

Death on Demand
by Carolyn G. Hart

If you don't like authors who name drop mysteries they've read then you need to run screaming from Death on Demand, should you ever happen to encounter it. Given that Carolyn Hart's protagonist is the owner of a mystery bookshop on a South Carolina island that caters to the tourist trade, this is not as off-putting as it might sound. Granted, it seems that the author name drops at least once, and often quite a bit more, on every one of the two hundred-plus pages, but for this type of book it works and it was actually kind of fun. Hart either knows her mystery history very will or she's great at faking it. I suspect the former.

The author has written nearly two dozen installments of the Death on Demand series in all. One can't help wondering how things play out twenty books into it but I found this book, the first in the series, to be rather entertaining, for the most part.

The owner of the Death on Demand bookstore is one Annie Laurance Darling, who hosts a weekly Sunday night gathering of mystery writers at the store. That so many popular and successful mystery writers should reside on one remote South Carolina island is a bit much to swallow but we'll chalk that one up to dramatic license. When one of the group claims to have dug up some dirt on each of his authorial colleagues he is bumped off forthwith, in a manner that fans of old-school mysteries will applaud, and more murders are not far behind.

The local Sheriff zeroes in on Darling as the most likely culprit, but she's not having any of that and proceeds to go into amateur detective mode, along with her ex-flame, who has recently turned up again to complicate her life. While I could do without romantic subplots, as a rule, this aspect was toned down to the point that it didn't really interfere with the story much.

Darling is actually no great shakes when it comes to the amateur detection thing and she makes a number of blunders along the way that don't really help her cause. She and ex-flame Max zero in on the other writers in the group and manage to sort it out by the time it's all said and done. In the best tradition of GAD mystery fiction there are plenty of maps, charts and lists to help the reader keep track of it all.

Judging from how many times her name was dropped throughout I'd hazard a guess that Hart's favorite author is Agatha Christie. While I'd never go so far as to use that dirty publisher's trick of calling her a worthy successor to Christie, I'd venture to say that she's come up with a fitting tribute to the old-school style of mystery, as practiced by Christie and others.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Movie - The Lone Wolf Strikes

The Lone Wolf Strikes
Based on characters created by Louis Joseph Vance
1940's been nice not seeing you in the past few days. (Michael Lanyard, The Lone Wolf)

A jewel theft is the crime du jour in this installment of The Lone Wolf series. The culprits and methods are pretty well laid out early on and so there's not a whole lot of whodunit action this time around. But it's an entertaining way to spend about an hour nonetheless and there are a few interesting twists thrown in later in the proceedings.

When a wealthy banker lets a young, attractive lady friend wear an expensive string of pearls she takes this as an opportunity to do the old switcheroo. Not long after the banker dies in a suspicious car crash and his partner comes to see The Lone Wolf, aka Michael Lanyard, to get the jewels back and bring the thieves to justice. Given Lanyard's background working on the wrong side of the law he's uniquely qualified to sort it all out.

For a more in-depth look at The Lone Wolf in fiction and film, try out this article at TCM. For another take, here's a review from a fan site dedicated to star Warren William.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hallmark's Mystery Movies

If you haven't noticed, the Hallmark Movie Channel currently airs reruns of Matlock and Murder, She Wrote. Over the years they've also produced a number of installments of various mystery series at movie length. I wrote about two of these recently, in a piece that appeared at the Criminal Element site.

Most of us probably know Hallmark as the greeting card people, but if your cable TV lineup extends beyond the basic selections you may have noticed that somewhere higher up there in the channel range is a creature known as the Hallmark Movie Channel. While Hallmark’s not going to give Hollywood a run for their money anytime soon, they do generate quite a few original movies, including nearly 250 Hallmark Hall of Fame titles alone over the course of several decades.

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Movie: The Ex-Mrs. Bradford

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
From a story by James Edward Grant

Brad's very quick. Nothing escapes him. Except the murderer. (Paula Bradford)

After taking a crack at Philo Vance in The Kennel Murder Case, in 1933, William Powell took up the role of Nick Charles in The Thin Man a year later and in five sequels over the course of the next thirteen years. Amongst all of that activity he also found time to play Dr. Lawrence Bradford in the comic mystery, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford.

As things get underway Bradford is drawn into the investigation of the murder of a jockey, while also dealing with the ramifications of the sudden and unexpected return of his ex-wife. A few more murders break out along the way, Bradford gets roughed up on more than one occasion, and the couple end up coming to a truce and reuniting.

As for the mystery elements, one could safely say that the method used for the murder is kind of gimmicky and more than a bit farfetched. The method Bradford uses to nail the murderer also stretches credibility a bit, as he calls on resources that seem far above what he would have access to. But such considerations are probably secondary when it comes to this type of screwballish mystery.

Fans of comic mystery cinema should note that Eric Blore, who plays Bradford's butler Stokes, turned up playing a similar role in a number of installments of The Lone Wolf series. Hildegarde Withers fans will surely recognize James Gleason, who played her foil, Inspector Piper, in all six of the Withers films from the Thirties. His portrayal of Inspector Corrigan here is essentially more of the same, albeit with the gruffness factor turned down a few notches.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Three for the Chair, by Rex Stout

Three for the Chair
by Rex Stout

I don’t like the slant of your eye. If you're thinking of badgering me, don't. Go somewhere. (Nero Wolfe, to Archie Goodwin)

My game plan was to skip over the few volumes I missed the first time through the Nero Wolfe canon and go through the entire list again, this time in order. So much for those best-laid plans. Since I ran across one of the unread volumes at my local bookstore I decided to give it a whirl. I wouldn't say that Three for the Chair is one of Stout's strongest outings but it had its moments.

A Window for Death
My main quibble with this one was the pacing. The first half of the story finds Wolfe and the principals in the (murder) case sitting in Wolfe's office, discussing the case. While I'm not expecting the pacing of a Die Hard movie it got to be a bit much. Fortunately the second half picks up a bit and Stout throws in something fairly ingenious - but enough said about that.

Immune to Murder
In this one Wolfe gets out of the brownstone to attend a gathering of the rich and powerful at a lodge in upstate New York. One of the diplomats visiting there has requested that Wolfe attend and execute his famous recipe for fresh trout. Things proceed quite nicely until one of the other attendees is bumped off and Wolfe springs into action - more so that he can get home than out of any sense of duty. As you can see from the accompanying clip this is one of the stories made into an episode for the most recent Nero Wolfe TV series (FYI - I haven't reviewed the clip for spoilers).

Too Many Detectives
I'd rank this as the best of the bunch, probably because the fat man and Archie have a strong interest in resolving the crime that drives it. Wolfe and a number of other private detectives have been called to Albany for questioning about their role in some potentially illegal wiretapping activities. While they're being questioned a somewhat bold crime is committed, Wolfe ends up in hot water and must rally his fellow detectives to get things sorted out.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Top 11 Mystery Books for 2011

I'm jumping the gun a bit and it may be necessary to do an update or two in the next few weeks but here is my Best of List for 2011, as it stands now. In my estimation the first four books on the list are a cut above the others. Other than that the list is in no particular order.

I didn’t put together a best of list for mystery movies that I saw this year, but in that category I'd give a special shout out to the Hildegarde Withers movies, as adapted from the works of Stuart Palmer. Of these, my favorites were Murder on a Blackboard and Murder on a Honeymoon, the second and third installments of the series of six. If you keep an eye on Turner Classic Movies you'll probably run across them before long.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Sabina Hall, by L.B. Greenwood (1988)
The Second Confession, by Rex Stout (1949)
The Sherlockian, by Graham Moore (2010)
The Dime Museum Murders, by Daniel Stashower (1999)

Nine Man's Murder, by Eric Keith (2011)
A Dark and Stormy Night, by Jeanne Dams (2010)
Sherlock Holmes and the Shakespeare Letter, by Barry Grant (2010)
The Magic Bullet, by Larry Millett (2011)
Christmas Is Murder, by C.S. Challinor (2008)
Hercule Poirot's Christmas, by Agatha Christie (1939)
The Affair of the Mutilated Mink, by James Anderson (1981)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Movie - Mr. and Mrs. North

Mr. and Mrs. North
Based on characters created by Frances and Richard Lockridge

Lieutenant Weigand, could you possibly find the murderer by Friday? (Pamela North)

I tried to read one of Frances and Richard Lockridge's Mr. and Mrs. North novels a little while back and I lost interest not too far in. Since watching this movie I've decided to give their fiction another shot.

What I find a bit odd is that Dashiell Hammett's solitary Thin Man book spawned six movies. Stuart Palmer's detective Hildegarde Withers appeared in about a dozen and a half books and wound up on the big screen seven times. As for Mr. and Mrs. North they only made it to film once, even though their adventures were chronicled in more than two dozen novels.

The movie could probably have been called just Mrs. North and no one would have objected. Gracie Allen is a bit before my time but I gather that she specialized in playing ditzy dames not unlike this incarnation of Pamela North. Allen steals the show here and William Post's role as Gerry North is pretty much relegated to that of straight man and suspect.

The problems start when the Norths come home one day to find a stiff stashed in a closet. As the story unfolds there are more and more bits of evidence uncovered that cast suspicion upon Mr. North. Of course, his devoted wife is not about to take this lying down, although at one point even her faith in him seems to waver a bit.

In the tradition of Lt. Columbo, James Anderson's Inspector Wilkins, and probably quite a few more I can' t think of right now, Pam North is one of those crime solvers who doesn't exactly inspire confidence but who does a great deal to figure out the whole mess before it's all over. If you haven't guessed it already things are played mostly for laughs here and there's a great running gag about a Fuller Brush salesman who actually has some information the police need but keeps getting tossed out on his you know what because everyone assumes he's just trying to make a buck.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Dime Museum Murders, by Daniel Stashower

The Dime Museum Murders
by Daniel Stashower

Our investigation is at yet in its earliest stages, but we've managed to rule out homicidal orangutans. (Lieutenant Murray)

A locked room murder with Harry Houdini as an amateur detective? Well, sign me up for that one.

My intense fascination with the exploits of Harry Houdini probably began to fade at some point around age ten. Which was a few decades ago. But there's apparently still some residue of that fascination left even to this day and so when I ran across Daniel Stashower's The Dime Museum Murders at my local library I did not hesitate.

I'm not sure what to make of the retrofitting of real-life people to make it seem that they were amateur detectives but in this particular case I was willing to suspend disbelief and just go along for the ride. The tale is told some years after Harry Houdini's death and the premise is that his brother Dash is relating the story to a newspaper reporter.

Dash is the sensible, level-headed brother, which is a good thing since he serves to keep Harry grounded. Stashower's portrayal of Harry Houdini is an interesting one as he's not a particularly likeable or even sympathetic character. In the time period covered by Dash's reminiscences it's early in Harry's career and he has yet to become the sensational escape artist who would later go on to capture the world's attention.

The Harry Houdini of this story is a driven man who remains convinced of his greatness even though he is scraping by, working as a magician and doing whatever else he needs to do in traveling shows and in a dime museum (think circus sideshow) in New York City. Because he spends a fair amount of time in their jail cells, practicing his escapes, Harry is rather well-known to the police and so is called upon to assist when a toy magnate is found in his locked (from the inside) study, with an odd little gadget known as an automaton on his desk.

Harry is called in to consult only because of his knowledge regarding automatons, but when a toy shop owner and good friend of the brothers is arrested for the crime, Harry drags Dash into a full-scale amateur investigation. Stashower throws in some interesting twists and turns along the way and the solution of the locked room murder is actually a rather clever one that shouldn't leave any reader feeling as though they've been cheated.

Although the brothers eventually solve the crime you could make the argument that Harry is not a particularly shrewd detective and Stashower keeps up a nice running gag wherein at one time or another Harry wrongly points the finger of suspicion at nearly everyone connected in any way with the case.

Highly recommended, even to those who didn't spend their early years as an avid Harry Houdini fan.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Movie: Murder on a Honeymoon

Murder on a Honeymoon
From a story by Stuart Palmer

I never look at a corpse on an empty stomach. (Inspector Oscar Piper)

The worst thing about the movie appearances of Stuart Palmer's amateur detective Hildegarde Withers is that there weren't enough of them, especially the ones starring Edna May Oliver, who played the role in three of the six installments.

This time around Oliver and James Gleason, who played the crabby Inspector Piper in all of the Withers movies, really hit their stride, following Penguin Pool Murder, the series opener, and Murder on a Blackboard, the second film. The comic antics seem to have been ramped up a few notches and I can't help wondering if it has anything to do with the fact that humorist Robert Benchley had a hand in the writing.

Things get underway with Miss Withers on a flight to a resort on Catalina Island, off the coast of southern California. Before the plane arrives one of her fellow passengers expires and it's not long before foul play is suspected. Though the Inspector is back in New York he finds out about the death and has access to information that suggests that Miss Withers might be in danger. Thus he must go west, which dispenses with the problem of how to get our crime-fighting duo together.

Once they do they proceed to untangle the complicated web of plot with the usual difficulties thrown in their way. Of course there's no shortage of the expected bickering and fussing with each other as well. Oscar the grouch is typically gruff and somewhat clueless and its Miss Withers who once again does much of the actual crime solving.

There's only one more of the Withers movies that I haven't seen and then that well will be dry. But it looks like Turner Classic Movies is planning a marathon of Thin Man movies later this month so all hope is not lost in classic comic mystery land.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fer-De-Lance, by Rex Stout

By Rex Stout

There was no reason why I shouldn't have been sent for the beer that day, for the last ends of the Fairmont National Bank case had been gathered in the week before and there was nothing for me to do but errands, and Wolfe never hesitated about running me down to Murray Street for a can of shoe-polish if he happened to need one.
(Opening line of Fer-De-Lance, the first Nero Wolfe novel)

In 2010 and early 2011 I read through most of the Nero Wolfe canon, though I came up about nine books short. I also read a handful of the post-Rex Stout novels written by Robert Goldsborough. Rather than seek out the nine books that I have yet to read I decided to give the Wolfe books another go, this time working my way through the series in order.

Which brought me to Fer-De-Lance, the one that started it all. I have to admit that I had some misgivings about re-reading these books but since the Wolfe books are as much about the characters and their interactions as they are about the whodunit aspect that didn't turn out to be much of an issue. Especially since I don't always have the greatest memory for the assorted and sundry details of plot in a book I first read over a year ago.

You may or may not know what a fer-de-lance is. As I recall, I didn't before reading this book. I won't spill the beans for those who don't but it wouldn't be that much of a spoiler. It's fairly early on that Wolfe works out the clever method by which the murder that drives this book is committed. It's not all that much further before he also determines who the killer is. From there it's just a matter of digging up enough dirt to make things stick.

This being the first book of the series, there were a few things missing that tended to turn up in many, if not most, of the later novels and novellas. One of the most notable, and it obviously has to do with the fact that the crime is committed out of town, is that the long-suffering Inspector Cramer is nowhere to be found. Saul Panzer and some of the other regular operatives are on hand as is one who apparently fell by the wayside before long - the name escapes me at the moment. Also worth noting, Archie apparently has yet to develop that amazing recall of his and at one point even has to go so far as looking up a phone number that he called not all that long ago. And there is no gathering together of the principals in the case for one of Wolfe's grand and theatrical summations.

Fer-De-Lance is also a lot longer than many of the Wolfe novels, as it clocks in at nearly three hundred pages. For me, it seems that the shorter books and novellas seem to work better for the most part but this one didn't really seem to suffer much from its added bulk.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Movie: The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady

The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady
Based on a character created by Joseph Louis Vance

When a would-be jewel thief is killed the finger of suspicion points to the woman whose apartment he died in. She rushes into to the street and (no small coincidence here) encounters one Michael Lanyard, aka The Lone Wolf, who, along with his valet Jamison is trying to outrun a traffic cop.

The Lone Wolf is a somewhat renowned and rather dapper jewel thief. He and Jamison do the chivalrous thing and take the fair lady under their wing while trying to determine who perpetrated the crime. Another stiff turns up before it's all said and done and there's a fairly interesting twist regarding the necklace that started the whole mess.

Which makes for a pretty entertaining and quite lighthearted little piece of celluloid. About the only real drawback for me was Eric Blore, who tended to overplay his role as Jamison quite a bit. Three Stooges fans (guilty) will want to note that there's a brief walk-on by none other than Shemp Howard (see the accompanying video clip).

I wasn't familiar with The Lone Wolf prior to this viewing experience but there were actually more than two dozen films made from Vance's stories, the first of them all the way back in 1917. For a fairly thorough overview of The Lone Wolf's exploits, look here.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Shakespeare, Rex Stout and the Novella

Here's another one from the shameless self-promotion file. I recently published a mystery novella called Murder at Terra Vista Station. Even more recently I wrote a brief piece for Omnimystery News, in which I discuss my reasons for writing a novella, rather than a novel or a long short story.

My reasons for doing so have a lot to do with the inspiration provided by one of my favorite authors, Rex Stout, who actually published more Nero Wolfe novellas than novels. You can read the piece here, if you're so inclined.