Sunday, February 19, 2012

Suicide Excepted, by Cyril Hare

Suicide Excepted
by Cyril Hare

I wasn't familiar with Cyril Hare (A.A. Gordon Clark) prior to reading this book. According to one source he wrote about ten mysteries in all, most of them novels, between the years 1937 and 1957. This is the third one and features one of his regulars, police Inspector Mallett.

I've been searching for the right word to describe Hare's style and I can't seem to come up with anything. Workmanlike and mundane both came to mind, but since they have something of a negative connotation that's not quite what I'm looking for. What I'm driving at here is that there's nothing flashy or exotic about this book, just a good solid mystery in which the plot unravels in a methodical fashion and leads to a satisfying conclusion - with a fairly decent twist.

Things get underway when the vacationing Mallett strikes up a conversation with an elderly hiker in the hotel where they're staying. Said hiker is found dead of an apparent overdose the next morning but Mallett tries to stay clear of the proceedings for the most part, since he's not really there on business.

At this point the deceased man's family mount their own investigation in hopes of proving that his death was murder rather than suicide. This is critical since a clause in the insurance policy will dramatically affect the size of the payout depending on which is the case. The man's son and daughter spearhead the amateur investigation, aided by the daughter's fiancée.

All of which proceeds quite nicely until we near the end, at which point Mallett decides it's time to stick his nose in again and that's really all I'm going to say about this one. While the twist might not seem so spectacular, depending on your level familiarity with this sort of thing, it was probably reasonably fresh some seventy years ago and worked pretty well for me even to this day.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Dead on the Water: Shipboard Mysteries

I've read a number of books lately that happened to be set on ocean liners, cruise ships and whatnot, including titles by Carter Dickson, Marion Mainwaring and Boris Akunin. Then I finally had a chance to see the 1978 adaptation of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile. Which led me to start wondering what other such works were out there and that led to an article that recently appeared at Criminal Element, titled Dead on the Water: Shipboard Murder Mysteries.

It’s probably not surprising that so much mystery fiction is set on cruise ships and similar vessels. This form of travel used to be the only game in town for going great distances across large bodies of water. Nowadays, people are less likely to travel this way out of necessity, but there’s a thriving cruise industry that depends on pleasure seekers taking to the water. For mystery authors, fiction set on the water has the bonus of allowing them to isolate a group of victims/suspects from the rest of the world. Given how much of this fiction exists, it would be foolish to try to look at it all in one short article, so I will stick with some highlights.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Movie: The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles
From a story by
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I have to confess that I've never read The Hound of the Baskervilles, though I recently took steps to rectify the matter and am finally working my way through it. Some years back, for whatever reason, I happened to watch a number of the many cinematic adaptations of the story and I thought I'd revisit this one.

Which is a pretty jim-dandy piece of work, if you ask me. It stars Richard Roxburgh as Holmes and Ian Hart as Watson and it’s the latter who really steals the show here. Even though I haven't read the story yet I know enough about it to know that it's largely Watson's show. In this adaptation I'd venture to say that this is even more so, not only in those times when Holmes is nowhere to be found but also when he's on screen. Hart dominates the proceedings so thoroughly that even when Holmes is there it seems that he's relegated almost to the role of a minor character.

Not to belabor the point, but Hart's Watson is also a very forceful and rather brooding sort of chap. He's a man of action and not as inclined to take his cues from the mighty Holmes as other Watsons we've seen on the big or small screen. There are even several scenes in which, quite simply, he rips the great detective a new one. This, for a variety of infractions, but most notably for keeping him in the dark about the facts of the case at hand.

Aside from the main characters there's plenty more to like about this one, including the dark, menacing setting (the Isle of Man, which fills in quite nicely for the real Dartmoor) and cinematography. The other actors acquit themselves quite nicely, with a special nod to Richard Grant for his especially smarmy incarnation of Stapleton. The one great drawback here, though it's not really a deal-breaker, is the hound itself, a dopey-looking piece of work that looks like an animatronic version of some critter on loan from an episode of the Muppets.

It's my understanding that the production did take some liberties with Doyle's yarn, as cinematic adaptations are prone to do. Obviously I can't speak to that with any authority, but I will say that, taken as a discrete unit, this was quite an entertaining and suspenseful piece of work, even if you do know how it's going to turn out.

Trivia fans take note, Hart later portrayed none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in Finding Neverland (2004), while Grant had previously tackled Holmes in a 1992 BBC TV movie called The Other Side.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Harry Houdini in Mystery Fiction

It started innocuously enough. I read one mystery that featured Harry Houdini and then one thing led to another. One of those things is this article I recently wrote for Criminal Element, titled Magical Mystery Tour: Houdini’s Appearances. It's a chronicle of Houdini's many appearances in mystery fiction, though I'm sure I probably missed a few.

I never intended to make an informal survey of the many appearances of Harry Houdini in the annals of mystery fiction. It just sort of happened that way. Quite frankly, until I began investigating the matter I didn’t realize that he was a character so beloved by mystery writers—and writers in general, even celebrity authors such as William Shatner, who “co-wrote” a book in which Houdini and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle team up to determine if there really is life after death.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Trent's Last Case, by E.C. Bentley

Trent's Last Case
By E.C. Bentley

If you can tell me at any time, how under the sun a man who put on all those clothes could forget to put in his teeth, you may kick me from here to the nearest lunatic asylum, and hand me over as an incipient dement. (Philip Trent)

As Edward Hoch noted in his review of Trent's Last Case, opinions on Bentley's book have been somewhat mixed, with Ellery Queen and G.K. Chesterton among those shouting hosannas to the heavens and many later reviewers not nearly so enthusiastic. I guess I'd put myself somewhere in the middle of the pack. Early on, I found myself thinking that this was one of the most readable and entertaining books I'd read for quite some time. I'm sorry to say that the center did not hold, although things did pick up again near the end.

It's kind of tricky to discourse about this one without spoiling the good stuff, but I'll give it a whirl. Artist Philip Trent is called to the mansion of a fabulously wealthy and successful businessmen, whose murder has rocked the business world, not to mention the world in general. Trent is there in his capacity as a freelance journalist but he conducts himself more like an amateur detective. During the course of his investigations he sews things up pretty neatly and moves on.

Which is where the story took a dive for this particular reader. It's probably not a spoiler to reveal that Trent falls hard for the widow of the victim, which is the part of the story that left me cold, given that he moons and mopes about like a love-struck dingbat. Fortunately, as I've already noted, things pick up considerably from here, with a couple of interesting twists that can’t really be discussed without giving away too much.

If Bentley's editor had excised that "Trent-in-love" section from the book you'd have a book that merits some pretty high praise. Even so I'd say it's a pretty decent effort. Although at no point while I was reading Trent's Last Case did it occur to me that it might be, as Wikipedia notes, "the first major sendup of that genre." I guess that's a matter of opinion. Either it's not at all or I'm just not a perceptive enough reader to have taken notice of that angle.

(This was the first of the books I committed to read for Bev Hankins' Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2012. It's also the last on the list chronologically, since I chose the Prehistory of Mystery as my theme. More about the challenge here and here is my list of books.)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Movie: Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile
From a story by Agatha Christie

Come, Bowers, it's time to go, this place is beginning to resemble a mortuary. (Mrs. Van Schuyler)

I must have seen parts of this movie before, as some of it looks familiar, but apparently I never watched the whole thing. Too bad, since I'd rank it right up there with the best mystery flicks I've ever seen.

I'm not real well-read when it comes to Agatha Christie, having only tackled about a dozen titles thus far. I have yet to read Death on the Nile, but in this case I think that not having done so first only served to enhance the experience.

As the novel and movie are rather well-known I won't go very deeply into the plot. It's a pretty good one, as these things go. As the title suggests, most of the story takes place onboard a steamboat traveling down the Nile, with a passenger compliment that consists primarily of a bunch of well-heeled tourists - and Hercule Poirot.

It's all pretty cut and dried, with the first part of the movie demonstrating that nearly everyone on board has a bone to pick - and a reason to kill - the victim. After that killing, things also proceed fairly methodically, with M. Poirot questioning all potential suspects and a few more instances of mayhem breaking out.

Which makes it sound like a pretty mediocre affair, but it's anything but. What brings this one right up to the top of the heap is a number of things, including the execution, with Anthony Shaffer's screenplay and John Guillermin's direction coaxing every available drop of drama out of the proceedings. I especially liked the scenes in which the characters play out the hypothetical scenarios Poirot lays out for how each might have committed the crime.

Then there's the truly all-star cast, which includes Peter Ustinov as Poirot and a boatload of other luminaries, including David Niven, Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith, and many more. And though he's not a name that I recognized, I.S. Johar, as the boat's manager, pretty much manages to steal every scene he's in, with a performance that calls to mind equal parts of Jerry Lewis and Peter Sellers.

Then there is the setting. Which is Egypt - and that's the real Egypt, mind you, not some cut-rate studio backlot. Which may not have been a treat for the actors, working long days on a riverboat in intense heat, but it's an extra-special treat for the viewers. About the only thing I regret is that I wasn't watching this movie in a movie theater, on a big screen. But maybe someday.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Shots at Sea, by Tom Lalicki

Shots at Sea
by Tom Lalicki

It is a gentleman's agreement, you might say, that English criminals do not carry guns, so English police do not need them either. (Inspector Tatum)

My exploration of mystery fiction that "stars" Harry Houdini continues with Shots at Sea, by Tom Lalicki. The author of Spellbinder: The Life of Harry Houdini, a biography, Lalicki later wrote the Houdini & Nate mysteries for young adults. This volume is the second in that series of three books.

The books are written from the viewpoint of Nathaniel G. Makeworthy Fuller, who becomes friends and solves crimes with the great Houdini. This time around the duo are headed to Europe on the great ocean liner Lusitania. Also on board, the former president Theodore Roosevelt, who is nearly shot by an assassin early on in the voyage.

What follows is not really a mystery in the whodunit sense, but more of a thriller/adventure story as we and the protagonists wait to see if the assassin will strike again and they do whatever they can to prevent it. While it didn't make for bad reading I'm obviously not even close to the target demographic and now that my curiosity is satisfied I won't be coming back to this series.