Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Poisoner's Bookshelf

Poison. Yum. Turns out that when it comes to real-life murdering it's probably not all that common, but in mystery fiction it's long been a tried and true favorite. I recently wrote an article for Criminal Element called The Poisoner's Bookshelf. As the name suggests, it's a look at a number of books on the topic.

If you’re going to get bumped off outside the pages of a mystery novel, chances are pretty good that you won’t be the victim of poison. It’s more likely that you’ll be shot, stabbed, or clubbed. As of 2008, according to the Department of Justice, the most popular methods of doing away with someone in the United States were guns, knives, and blunt objects, in that order. Poisoning fell into the sixth-ranked All Other category along with other miscellaneous means of mayhem such as explosives and narcotics.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hurricane Party, by Steve Brown

Hurricane Party
by Steve Brown

It's a time-honored premise of mystery fiction - take a group of characters, cut them off from the rest of the world by one means or another and have one of said characters (presumably) start bumping off the others. It's a premise that was most famously used by Agatha Christie in And Then There Were None and I'll pause to direct you to At the Scene of the Crime, where Patrick has been doing an in-depth analysis of that landmark work.

But of course there have been many other authors who have made use of this premise with varying degrees of success and some have made no bones about the fact that they're trying out their own variations on Christie's theme. I'm always willing to take a shot at a book that utilizes this device and three works that I've especially liked are A Dark and Stormy Night, by Jeanne Dams; The Burglar in the Library, by Lawrence Block; and Nine Man's Murder, by Eric Keith.

Given all of this I was quite keen to take Steve Brown's Hurricane Party out for a spin. Nothing tricky about that title, mind you. Brown's cast of characters are a group of people who are attending an actual (somewhat ill-advised) hurricane party at a beachfront mansion in South Carolina. The host, who fancies herself to be something of a witch, has promised that she'll use her powers to stop the hurricane but it's not too long before someone puts a stop to her life, in a manner of speaking.

And so it goes. As the plot unfurls, it turns out that nearly everyone in attendance has some thread connecting them in their past and a number of them have been involved in an incident that perhaps was not quite illegal but was decidedly unethical and unsavory, to boot. Brown dedicates the book to Christie and early on it's a fairly straightforward variation on And Then There Were None. The body count mounts and the hurricane rages (making a comeback after the witch had apparently halted its progress) and Brown's series character, investigator Susan Chase, steps in and takes over, attempting to figure out who's doing it.

All of which was worked pretty well until somewhere near two-thirds of the way through the book. At this point what had been a fairly cozy-ish reworking of Christie took an abrupt left turn. Chase and a few others began battling the storm and a few of the other more aggressive guests in a succession of scenes that's more suited to an action thriller - or whatever you want to call it. Which didn't quite work for me. Ditto for Chase herself, who apparently has a quite turbulent past and might be justifiably angst-ridden but for me a little bit of that sort of thing goes a long way.

But I realize that my thoughts on these two points is really just a matter of personal preference and so while I wasn't quite blown away by Hurricane Party I also realize that there may be others who will find it quite enjoyable.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Curious Case of the Curious Sherlock Holmes Books

Among the zillions of books that star Sherlock Holmes are some decidedly offbeat titles. Then there are those works of nonfiction that somehow connect their subject to Holmes in one way or another, though sometimes this seems a bit forced. I recently wrote an article about some of the more curious of these titles, an article the appeared at the Criminal Element site.

As of May 2011, Guinness World Records claimed that Sherlock Holmes was “the most frequently recurring character on screen,” having been portrayed in 238 films. As far as books that chronicle Holmes and Watson’s adventures, there have been countless volumes published, in addition to those by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Trying to determine how many Holmes books there are may be an exercise in futility, one that recalls Lear’s quip, “that way madness lies.” One site lists more than 300 “novel pastiches in which Sherlock Holmes is at least one of the main characters” and literary luminaries from John Dickson Carr to Michael Chabon to Stephen King...


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Movie: Jewel Robbery

Jewel Robbery
based on a story by Ladislaus Fodor

It surely didn't win any awards for its bland title and it's not even close to being a whodunit, but Jewel Robbery is notable for its comic touch and for the fact that it stars William Powell, several years before he took a crack at those six Thin Man movies.

Powell's connection to crime and mystery cinema had already been established by this time. His first movie role, in 1922, was a minor part in the John Barrymore version of Sherlock Holmes. By the time of Jewel Robbery he had already taken on the role of Philo Vance in four films and would do so one more time, in 1933.

Powell's role here is a character known as The Robber. He's a dapper and quite sophisticated jewel thief in the vein of The Lone Wolf and that sort. When he knocks off a jewelry shop, in a very precisely orchestrated operation, the urbane Robber comes upon a young, attractive Baroness who catches his eye - and vice versa.

All of which adds up to a mildly screwy screwball comedy with a healthy dash of romance, grafted onto a framework of a crime story that's mostly there to keep the plot moving in a forward direction. I'd rank it as a mildly diverting curiosity, if you like this sort of thing, and not much more than that.

The New York Times reviewed this one back in the day. They called it "nervous, brittle comedy of a sort that is sufficiently novel in the films to be stimulating. " More here.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Religious Body, by Catherine Aird

The Religious Body
by Catherine Aird

I've read five or six books thus far by Catherine Aird and I have yet to find a dud. You won't find them all of these titles reviewed here since I read several before starting this site. Most of Aird's novels have focused on the efforts of Inspector C.D. Sloan and this was the book that kicked off that long-running series.

While it's not a dud, The Religious Body was not without a few relatively minor flaws. More about that in a moment. The setting, as the title sort of suggests, is a convent, and the first of the murder victims is one of the nuns who's cloistered there. While I wouldn't have picked a convent as a likely setting for a whodunit, Aird does a pretty good job with recreating the somewhat oppressive atmosphere of the place, all of which enhances the flavor of the story.

Which is fraught with the requisite array of twists and turns and the mayhem therein may have something to do with at least one of the nun's former lives. There's also an agricultural school next door, home to a gang of rowdy young boys and attendant staff, all of which maybe relevant to the proceedings.

Which added up to a fairly entertaining and compact piece of work, but now let's move on to those flaws. In his review at his site At the Scene of the Crime, Patrick rightly points out that there are a few weak points in the plotting/clueing. One has to do with a bloody thumbprint and the other the motivation for one of the killings. I can't argue with that and I'd add that the motivation for the first killing seems to something of an afterthought, once it's been revealed to the reader.

None of which really dampened my enthusiasm for the book all that much and I'm sure I'll continue to keep working my way through Aird's works as I run across them.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Movie: The Notorious Lone Wolf

The Notorious Lone Wolf
Based on characters created
by Louis Joseph Vance

There's a sight for suspicious eyes. It's The Lone Wolf. (Inspector Crane)

After watching five installments of The Lone Wolf series starring Warren William in the title role I thought it might be jarring to move onto The Notorious Lone Wolf, which is the first post-William installment. This one starred Gerald Mohr, who went on to do the next two in the series and who later voiced the role for a radio series.

In truth I'd have to say that Mohr is closer in appearance and mannerisms to William Powell's Nick Charles in the Thin Man series than he was to William. While the previous installments of the series were certainly lighthearted enough this one is one notch away from being a screwball comedy with a few crime/mystery elements tossed in for good measure. At times I felt like I was watching a Three Stooges short and there were at least two sight gags pretty much lifted part and parcel from the Stooges (who may have lifted them from someone else, to be perfectly fair).

The plot, such as it is, finds The Lone Wolf (Michael Lanyard) coming home after four years overseas. After a happy reunion with his valet Jamison (still played by Eric Blore) the two find themselves embroiled in hijinks related to a jewel theft, with a few murders breaking out along the way. Given that Lanyard's former profession happens to be jewel thief, he's always a prime suspect when this sort of thing is afoot and helps crack the case as much to clear his name as out of altruistic motives.

Recommended for those who don't mind a pretty hefty dose of comedy with their crime/mystery movies.