Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Formula for Murder, by Carol McCleary

The Formula for Murder
by Carol McCleary

As I've noted before, there's something about the Moors that I find an appealing setting for a novel. Which was what first drew me to Carol McCleary's The Formula for Murder. When I found out that it was a historical mystery that paired real-life reporter Nellie Bly with the likes of H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle I have to admit that I was a bit put off by what seemed like a gimmicky Superheroes of Literature type premise.

But since I already had the book in hand I thought I might as well give it a try and I'm glad that I did. McCleary has apparently written three of these Nellie Bly books in all and they all seem to take a similar approach in teaming the famed muckraking reporter with other well-known personalities of the day.

This one doesn't quite count as a whodunit, for my money, but there's a pretty interesting mystery at the heart of it all. It kicks off with a rather gritty scene that finds Bly in a morgue in London identifying the corpse of a young female colleague. McCleary doesn't really pull any punches here or anywhere else in the book and she provides an interesting perspective on the life of a female reporter in an age when that sort of thing wasn't really done.

As for the mystery, you could safely say that there are some elements of pulp fiction here, with a mad scientist, of sorts, doing some of those unholy experiments that mad scientists always seem to dabble in. As for the guest stars, H.G. Wells - who is not yet a popular writer - gets the most screen time. Wilde, not surprisingly, is a likable rogue with no apparent concern for what anyone else in the world thinks of him. Conan Doyle only makes a few brief appearances, but when he does he more or less serves as the anchor of this diverse group.


Trivia fans, take note. The real Nellie Bly apparently tried her hand at mystery fiction, with The Mystery of Central Park, which was published in 1889.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Movie - Dangerous Blondes

Dangerous Blondes
Based on a story by Kelley Roos

So you've got a well-heeled husband and wife couple who solve crimes in their spare time. He's been known to raise an elbow now and then and he definitely has an eye for the ladies. She tolerates the latter with good grace and there's plenty of witty banter going back and forth between the two. Well, that's gotta be...Barry and Jane Craig.

I have yet to read any fiction by Kelley Roos, but I hope to get around to it eventually. More about this husband and wife mystery fiction writing duo here. Dangerous Blondes is based on the Roos novel If the Shroud Fits and I can't help thinking that the resemblance to Nick and Nora Charles is not wholly accidental. The Thin Man movies were never short on comedy, which is a quality that seems even more evident here, but there's also an okay mystery at the heart of things - the killing of a wealthy old dowager type at an advertising shoot in a gloomy photo studio.

Which was a pretty entertaining piece of work as these comic mysteries go and I found as watchable - or more so - than most of them. Watch for the elevator gag that was resurrected in a Don Knotts movie some decades later and there's a fun quiz show parody that opens the movie and pits a team of police detectives against a team of detective fiction writers (headed by Barry Craig). Can you guess who wins? For that matter, can you guess which of the aforementioned cracks the case? Well, no prize for that one.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Movie - Forty Naughty Girls

Forty Naughty Girls
Based on characters created by Stuart Palmer

Having watched the other five of the Hildegarde Withers movies that were made in the Thirties I couldn't very well skip over this one. But I have to say that I wasn't expecting much - and that was about what I got.

I've reviewed all of the other installments here and written an overview article on the Withers character so I'm not going to devote much ink to this one. It was the last and the least of the movies to feature spinster schoolteacher Withers and her partner in (solving) crime, Inspector Oscar Piper.

The problem here, as with the previous installment - The Plot Thickens - is Zasu Pitts, who simply was not right for the main role. The mix of ditziness and befuddlement that she brings to the character is not what one really expects after the first three movies starring the formidable Edna May Oliver and a follow up starring Helen Broderick. James Gleason turns in a typically good performance as Piper, as he did in every one of the movies, but it's not enough to save the sinking ship.

The plot, if you must know, mostly takes place backstage at a theatre, where various acts of mayhem take place, mostly while a show is going on - a show Withers and Piper just happened to be attending.

Leonard Maltin's capsule review says, in part, "Final Hildegarde Withers mystery-comedy is just plain awful, with Pitts and Gleason getting involved in a backstage murder." I don't know if I'd go quite that far - or maybe I would. But I did kind of like the armor scene. Maybe it's the Stooge fan in me.

Here's a brief take on things from the New York Times, who weren't quite as hard on this gem as Maltin or yours truly.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Crime-Solving Couples of Yesteryear

Crime-Solving Couples of Yesteryear
By William I. Lengeman III

In kicking off an article about amateur detectives of yore, most of whom just happen to be married, the obvious opener would a play on the phrase “’til death do us part.” Since I’m not clever enough to come up with anything I’ll invite the reader to insert their own. In any event, here are a few great couples from way on back. Some are best known for their appearances in fiction while others are remembered for their time spent on the big screen.

Tommy & Tuppence: Chronologically speaking I suppose you’d have to start this list with Agatha Christie’s Tommy and...