Tuesday, April 28, 2015

SCRIBNER'S Reviews I

Some short mystery fiction reviews that appeared in Scribner's in the '30s are currently available online (for how long we don't know); adjust your book-buying proclivities accordingly. Brief excerpts:

~ Fast Company by Marco Page:
. . .  Fast Company tears aside the curtain from the last scene in the world where one would expect murder to be rampant—the rare book business.  . . . [See more HERE.]
~ The Case of the Substitute Face by Erle Stanley Gardner:
. . . There is a zip and zest to the story that place it among Mason's best cases, and the Gardner formula, though not strikingly changed, is here all furbished up till it shines.  . . . [More about Gardner HERE.]
~ The Dead Don't Care by Jonathan Latimer:
. . . His new one is not his best. Too much Minsky and not enough mystery.  . . . [See HERE for more about the author.]
~ Cradled in Murder by Rudd Fleming:
. . .  It has a certain horrid fascination, is definitely for those with strong stomachs, and would have been much better had the author scrapped the final scene, a psychopathic orgy that would have made Herr Kraft-Ebing dance for joy.
~ To Wake the Dead by John Dickson Carr:
. . . Mr. Carr's uncanny talent for sending tremors racing up and down the vertebrae has never been better displayed, and Dr. Fell booms and blusters in fine style.  . . . [See another review HERE.]
~ Death Wears a White Coat by Theodora DuBois:
. . .  The tale waxes somewhat heavily scientific at times but not enough to retard the action.  . . . [There's more about Theodora HERE.]
~ Truth Comes Limping by J. J. Connington:
. . . Mr. Connington is one of the better British practitioners of the mystery story, but in this yarn, not only truth, but the tale itself limps.  . . . [Read more about this "practitioner" HERE.]
~ If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King:
. . . From this neat beginning the story progresses through two more murders, considerable emoting, and a good trial scene, to a last-minute reprieve in the death house—for a reason the reader is not likely to guess.  . . . [Orson Welles used this book as a starting point for his film The Lady from Shanghai (IMDb).]
~ Curious Happenings to the Rooke Legatees by E. Phillips Oppenheim:
. . . very slight fare.  . . . [A bibliography of Oppenheim's works is HERE.]
~ Friday Market by Catherine Meadows:
. . .  In writing it's decidedly a cut above the average.  . . .
~ Murders Not Quite Solved! by Alvin F. Harlow:
. . . Mr. Harlow has ransacked the annals of American crime—there is only one foreign case—for a dozen murders, famous in their day, that, for one reason or another, have fallen short of a final solution.  . . .
Resource:
- The full reviews which came from the May 1938 issue of Scribner's are HERE (2 pages).

Category: Detective fiction criticism

True Crime Roundup VII

(1) "Our New Rum-Running Treaty" (1924) (1 page):
It's been four years since Prohibition has gone into effect, but the sheer impossibility of trying to keep America "dry" doesn't seem to have dawned on the responsible parties:
RUM ROW, OFF THE JERSEY COAST, will have to row farther out to sea now that Ambassador Geddes for Great Britain and Secretary of State Hughes for the United States have signed a joint treaty calculated to curtail if not entirely suppress rum smuggling. The so-called rumrunning treaty, which must still run the gantlet of ratification in the Senate, permits American Government vessels to search and seize British ships, suspected of carrying contraband liquors, within "one hour's steaming distance of the American shore."
In return for this privilege, the Government permits British ships to bring legitimate alcoholic liquors under seal into American ports, altho several editors remind us that this apparently conflicts with the Supreme Court decision which was supposed to make British and other ships entering our ports absolutely dry.
For brevity, the new treaty is one of the most remarkable international docu-ments on record . . . .
(2) "Washington's Prohibition Tragedy" (1924) (1 page):
Although the movies overdid it, occasionally gun battles between bootleggers and Volstead Act enforcers would happen—and sometimes innocent bystanders would suffer:
THE VICTIM of Washington's recent Prohibition tragedy, Senator Frank L. Greene, of Vermont, struck by a stray bullet in an exchange of shots between Prohibition enforcement agents and bootleggers.  . . .
From Wikipedia:
. . . On the evening of February 15, 1924, Greene was walking with his wife near an alley on Capitol Hill when Prohibition agents were about to arrest several men unloading a still from their car. The bootleggers ran, the agents fired their guns, and Greene was struck in the head by a stray bullet. Greene was in critical condition for several weeks, and never fully recovered. His right arm was para-lyzed, and his legs were severely weakened.  . . .
(3) "Our Share in the Murderer's Guilt" (1924) (2 pages):
Juvenile delinquency isn't a new thing in America, but how to deal with it has always been a subject of controversy:
. . . "The difficulty is that the moment you begin to talk about using scientific methods with criminals [especially those under twenty-five], people who have never looked into the subject at once say it is all nonsense. They say we are coddling the criminal, treating him as diseased, covering him with flowers and encouraging crime. But this is strictly not so.
"What those who believe in those things are advocating is simply that we shall anticipate the crime as far as possible. And, on the other hand, when they have committed crime, this army of predatory cavemen and women shall be kept for the safety of the public under present methods for as long terms of imprison-ment and confinement as possible."  . . .
(4) "Chemistry As a Crime-Detector" (1924) (2 pages):
Speaking of "scientific methods":
. . . This branch of science [chemistry], he [Dr. Henry Leffmann] tells us, early gained recognition as an aid to the detection of many forms of crime, but especially in the identification of poisons. While this is still one of the main objects of the chemist engaged in aiding the police and the courts, other questions of importance have arisen, among which is the detection of blood and the determination of the animal from which it is derived.  . . .
. . . "The modern control of foods and beverages has multiplied greatly the applications of chemistry, and compelled much research and investigation. Crime of all kinds, from murder to petty theft, manifests a good deal of ingenuity and resource, and the work of the public chemist is a sort of a game of hide and seek. A process for detection of a certain poison or adulterant becomes known; those who have criminal intent can frequently find either a substitute which is satisfactory for their purposes, but does not respond to the tests for the original substance, or they can mask the original substance so that the standard test fails. The chemist is constantly discarding processes either because better ones are available or because the ingenuity of law-breakers has changed conditions."  . . .
. . . "The detection of inferior materials is often very important, and chemical and microscopical methods are employed. The several fibers used in paper-making have distinct characteristics and, in addition, ground wood gives distinct colors with certain solutions. The detection of ground wood might serve to show a fraudulent document, since if a deed or other legal document purported to have been drawn at a date previous to the use of such wood was found to contain such material, the fraud would be evident."  . . .
(5) "New Traps for Picture-Fakers" (1924) (2 pages):
The influence of Locard seems to have served as an inspiration to other French forensics scientists:
SHERLOCK HOLMES HIMSELF could hardly surpass in resourcefulness the brilliant French chemist and physicist, Mr. Bayle, who is at the head of the Bureau of Judicial Identity in Paris, and recently addrest the French Academy of Sciences on his new and ingenious methods of detecting fraudulent works of art. He uses not only the microscope and both X-rays and ultra-violet rays, but also an invention of his own, the chromoscope.  . . .
. . . In a case recently tried in which a portrait of a woman painted by Renoir was the subject of litigation, he was able to show the very form of the brush-mark which had been altered from the normal by reason of a stroke of paralysis which the painter had suffered.  . . .
Resource:
- Our latest True Crime entry can be found HERE.

Category: True crime

Thursday, April 23, 2015

"I Do Not Dismiss Logic Because I Have Faith"

THE MYSTERIES OF REVEREND DEAN.
By Hal White.
Lighthouse Christian Publishing.
2008. 252 pages.
Story Collection: Six Stories.
For sale HERE.
Most people, I am delighted to say, are fond of the locked room. But — here's the damned rub — even its friends are often dubious. I cheerfully admit that I frequently am . . . . Why are we dubious when we hear the explanation of the locked room? Not in the least because we are incredulous, but simply because in some vague way we are disappointed. — Dr. Gideon Fell, "The Locked-Room Lecture," The Three Coffins, Chapter 17
So wrote John Dickson Carr, the foremost practitioner of the sealed-chamber mystery. We are certain, however, that you will not be disappointed in Hal White's locked-room mystery collection, The Mysteries of Reverend Dean. In times past a new writer would arrive on the scene and be proclaimed "the next Agatha Christie," which, of course, they turned out not to be. In Hal's case, however, he just might become, not the next Christie, but the next Carr, if his book is any indication.

Hal's central character is in the grand tradition of clerical detectives; he is described this way on Hal's website:
The Reverend Thaddeus Dean has just retired as pastor of a small church at the foot of the Cascade Mountains. He is lonely, poor and desperately misses his wife who died years ago. Fortunately, he has a pastime. He solves murders which are so bizarre as to seem impossible. In each of the stories collected in this volume, Reverend Dean is challenged by a seemingly “impossible” crime . . . . Readers won't just have to guess who the criminals are, they'll have to guess how they committed their crimes. Harking back to the stories of John Dickson Carr, Hal White has created a brilliant yet endearing sleuth who not only investigates crimes which seem insoluble, but crimes which appear impossible. But these are not supernatural stories — they are classic mysteries.
Each story is a first-rate head-scratcher. You'll have fun matching wits with Reverend Dean; we guarantee it.

----------

(1) "Murder at an Island Mansion"
"In Dark Pine I have felt things — and seen things — that are . . . unusual."
 -----
"Footprints will carry me away,
 but no seller of my house
 will see any footprints
 before he dies."
-----
She gazed at Reverend Dean's eyes. Someone was home in there, all right. There was no doubt about that. She almost jumped when the old man finally spoke.
-----
As Reverend Dean joined the frantic girls he looked down at the unfortunate victim — and was met with the vacant stare of Jay. It was vacant because a knife protruded from his heart.
Reverend Dean receives a desperate phone call from a former parishoner. Not only has her father recently died in hospital but there has also been another death in the family, her brother, the oldest heir to the estate — only he has been indisputably murdered, his body found on a stretch of beach completely devoid of footprints. But before Reverend Dean can even get to the family's opulent mansion, the next oldest sibling and heir is discovered stabbed to death just moments after the crime in the corner of a room, surrounded by wet paint on a floor also completely devoid of footprints. While Dean is pondering the complexities of the case, yet another sibling — the next in line to inherit — is found dead on a wet mud flat, with only the footprints of the discoverers of the crime leading up to it. Three impossible crimes — but with one solution. It's up to Reverend Dean to find the common denominator — not a ghost as one character believes, but a flesh-and-blood person with deep-seated insecurities and the ability, on occasion, to fly.

Reverend Dean outdoes not only Father Brown, Mr. Reeder, and Charlie Chan in the areas of modesty, humility, and self-effacement but also Uncle Abner in revealing the intricacies of divine justice.

(2) "Murder on the Fourth Floor"
He stopped in front of the trunk, shielded his eyes from the sun, and looked toward the top of the apartment building standing in the middle of the next block. Apparently intrigued by what he saw, he took a step toward the intersection. That's when the shot rang out.
-----
He was surprised by the caliber, however. A .22 . . . . A .22 rifle was a boy's gun. Or maybe . . . a woman's.
-----
". . . what do you do when the most important person in the world — the person who knows you better than anyone else — decides that you don't deserve to live?"
-----
"What did he see?"
"He says he saw a yellow snake slither past his window."
-----
"Then she can answer the question of the day — how did she get out of a sealed apartment without anyone seeing her?"
-----
"She printed a suicide note, drove to the park near I-90, and shot herself through the eye."
-----
"I know you. If your mind worked any harder, there'd be smoke coming out of your ears."
-----
"We both saw him get shot."
"It was impressive, wasn't it?"
Tim Dearborn and his wife Betty are separated and on the verge of divorce. Tim is about to meet with Reverend Dean and a mutual friend, Detective Mark Small, when a shot is fired and Tim collapses on the street, a bullet having passed through his arm. Sure, there was considerable animosity between us, Tim avers, but would Betty really try to murder me? Mark searches the apartment house across the street from which the shot most likely came; it's no surprise to him when he learns that Betty had a rented room there and that other residents can place her in her apartment at the time of the shooting. But there's an anomaly: No one can confidently testify to seeing her leave. It would seem she just vanished into . . . well, you know. When Betty's body is found later, complete with a typed suicide note, Mark is satisfied — for the most part — that the case is closed. Reverend Dean, however, is far from satisfied and filled with questions that Mark must admit have no easy answers. Without realizing it at the time, Mark and the reverend had been eyewitnesses not merely to an attempt on someone's life but the aftermath of a meticulously planned murder.

It takes Reverend Dean nearly sixteen pages to explain all the details of this crime — but not to worry; it isn't boring.

(3) "Murder on a Caribbean Cruise"
Despite her entertainment value, however, the reverend worried for anyone who might develop feelings for her. A worry, it turned out, that was terribly well founded.
-----
Thinking quickly, Carla grabbed a life preserver, pushed past the man and threw it overboard. But before she could take another step, the beefy man grabbed her hair, jerked her from the railing, and punched the courageous woman in the middle of her face.
-----
"Fifteen minutes ago, she called the bridge and told us that we 'shouldn't blame ourselves' for what she was going to do. Then she barricaded her door, and . . . well, you can see for yourself."
"Indeed I can." The reverend gently turned his friend's head again. "And that's how I know this poor woman did not kill herself. She was murdered."
-----
"You shouldn't have come here, Reverend. If I hurt my friends, what makes you think I won't hurt you?"
-----
The entire procedure, including explanation, had taken less than two minutes. The group was amazed. No one would have guessed the old man had such a nimble — and devious — mind.
An opportunity to take a Caribbean cruise arises, and Reverend Dean simply can't turn it down. Although he fears becoming a fifth wheel among a group of young unmarrieds — the "Surviving Singles" — he is quickly accepted by them. Little does he suspect, however, that one of the group harbors jealousy and conceals rage — enough of both to commit murder — and the cunning to execute a near-perfect locked room crime. Among the clues Reverend Dean must juggle and put in the right order are a pair of sunglasses, a doorknob that smells like mint julep, a dry wristwatch, a tiny smear of oil, a man who is rescued in the wrong place, dental floss, and a missing life preserver.

In this one, the irresistibly delicious shipboard cuisine becomes almost as great a threat to the reverend's well-being as the killer.

(4) "Murder at the Lord's Table"
"For this reason many of you are weak and sick — and some of you have died."
-----
"For this reason many of you are weak and sick — and one of you will die."
-----
The reverend knew his friend didn't look for theological fights, but he didn't back down from them, either. More than once this had created tensions.
-----
"Thus, I do not dismiss logic because I have faith. Rather — due to its unique view of man — logic leads me to my faith."
-----
"Two decades as a subordinate was bad enough. Two decades as the subordinate of someone you didn't respect was intolerable."
-----
The plan was brilliant in an evil kind of way . . . . Who better to impugn a pastor than God?
-----
"I said that you were a murderer . . . not that you were stupid."
-----
"The trick, of course, was to make people think that the poison came from somewhere else."
There are strange doings at Pastor Steve Ragsdale's little church: First an angel dressed all in white appears at one service and, after paraphrasing Scripture, departs; on another occasion Jesus attends the meeting, quotes virtually everything the angel said, and promptly disappears from a locked pastor's office. Pastor Steve is rattled enough to ask his good friend Reverend Dean to attend the next communion service; he does and along with thirty other witnesses sees Steve die in the sanctuary, a victim of poisoning. Rather than suspecting divine punishment being meted out on a man who seems to harbor some secret sin, however, Reverend Dean suspects a more mundane cause for Steve's death: "naked ambition, perhaps mixed with a dollop of theological disgust." Isn't that somewhat akin to the motive behind the first recorded murder, the one involving someone named Cain?

We go into largely ignored territory in this story: of how logic and faith do not necessarily work to their mutual exclusion, and of how they can operate in concert to help solve a murder.

(5) "Murder in a Sealed Loft"
". . . I've got a very peculiar case and I don't know what I'm missing . . . . Actually, I do know what I'm missing: who did it, how he did it and why he did it . . . . Have I left anything out?"
-----
She was found on her back, with a knife sticking out of her at a forty-five degree angle. The handle pointed toward her feet, with the blade sliding under her ribs into her heart.
-----
"So . . . we have what appears to be an impossible crime. Someone stabbed this unfortunate woman, yet the murder was performed while she was behind a door with three locks — two of which could only be locked from the inside — windows which were locked, and a large dog guarding the interior."
"Worse . . . the murder occurred while three witnesses were working around the building, thus insuring that no one could leave the unit unnoticed."
-----
"So the question is: why would a woman — murdered at approximately 1:00 PM on a Saturday afternoon — be covered with blood that she'd previously donated?"
-----
"It was a classic example of misdirection," the detective gloated. "And pretty smart, too, I must admit."
-----
Unaware he had been murdered, Puppadawg turned his ponderous head and licked the hands of his killer.
Reverend Dean is housebound, battling a case of the flu, when his friend Detective Mark Small pays a visit, bearing not gifts but the burden of a difficult case: the murder of a woman inside a locked and closely observed artist's studio. Anomalies abound: What could be the significance of such things as the missing stapler and paperweights, of the dog that correctly barked at the wrong person (or would it be the dog that incorrectly barked at the right person?), of the frozen blood on the corpse, of the triply-locked front door, of the apparently useless cot, and of the kid who often knocks a baseball over the roof of his house? Ignoring these bafflements, Mark soon thinks he has the killer nailed; but Reverend Dean, ill though he may be, sees the situation with more clarity: "Unlike his puzzled friend, he saw no problem with how the murder might have been committed. He knew at least four ways someone could accomplish it." Thanks to a pop fly, the reverend puts the killer out before he can steal home.

Because of the flu, Reverend Dean is forced into the role of armchair detective; he never leaves home, even to visit the scene of the crime.

(6) "Murder at the Fall Festival"
Annoyed with the locked door as well as her husband's disappearance, Tina let herself in the garage.
Ninety seconds later everyone in the house heard her scream.
-----
"My guess is that someone knocked him unconscious with a blunt object, and then suffocated him."
-----
The cleric frowned. He didn't like it. That sort of conspiracy only happened in fiction.
-----
More importantly, why murder someone in the garage in the first place? What was the point?
-----
"Despite what you see on TV, police work is specialized and complicated. I'm sure you're a very good minister, but in a criminal investigation, you're out of your depth. You have to leave this to the professionals."
-----
He knew why the circle was important. But that only solved half the problem. What about — Then the old man remembered the murderer's occupation. It was bizarre, but it fit. It all fit.
-----
"We've been waiting for garbage?"
"It's perfectly legal, Detective."
-----
". . . it was clearly planned on the spur of the moment. The mind that could produce this scheme, in such a limited time, is frightening."
It's almost Halloween and busy preparations are underway for a Fall Festival to be held at a local church; the festivities come to a screeching halt, however, when a woman finds her husband murdered in their garage. To Reverend Dean, several things just don't compute, such as how the killer could have done it in a place where dozens of people are milling about; or how the medical examiner's report doesn't jibe with the way it should have happened; or why, if the motive is properly understood, the murderer delayed so long in executing the crime, among others. Complicating matters further, the reverend must solve this one despite the disdain, scorn, if not quite outright hostility of the senior police detective. The answer to this conundrum can be found in any or all of these items: an unsmoked cigar, its metal tube, pieces of an ironing board cover, a curling iron, oven mittens, a metallic space blanket, a heating coil, a spinning wheel large enough to support a body, and the Eastern notion that time is circular. Concerning that last, however, Reverend Dean offers his own refutation when he puts the killer on a one-way path to a non-recurrent lifetime in prison.

Reverend Dean must get down and dirty in this one — all in the cause of justice, of course.

Resources:
- Hal White's homepage, loaded with plenty of information about locked room mysteries, is HERE.
- You can buy an omnibus edition containing Carr's The Three Coffins and two other novels HERE.

Category: Locked room mysteries (clerical division)

Monday, April 20, 2015

"This Streamlined Deduction Is Enough to Drive a Guy Whacky"

"The Man Who Murdered Himself."
By Duncan Farnsworth.
Fantastic Adventures, May 1941.
Online HERE.
Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise.
Can an accident be murder? Can murder be an accident? As this story shows, it all depends quite literally on one's state of mind.
"Wish I was back five centuries," he mused. "The boys had it easy then, if they'd only known it. Perry Mason, Nero Wolfe, Nick Carter, yeah, even Sherlock Holmes—what a snap they had!"
Category: Science fiction detective stories

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Short Note About Victorian Detective Fiction

For nearly a century and a half, the rigors of composing short detective fiction—as with the composition of fiction of any sort—have remained essentially the same:
The short story form has inherent limitations for the writer of detective fiction, but in the most capable hands these can be turned to triumphant effect, with consequent pleasures for the reader that the detective novel, for all its enticements, cannot provide. The establishing of a credible and engaging narrative voice is essential to a successful crime short; flamboyance of invention and a certain leisureliness in the telling must co-exist with economy of style, compression, and a well-paced plot; character must be sketched out swiftly but decisively; every incident must carry its share of relevance to the main idea, which itself needs to be simple and surprising. The art of the short detective story continues to evolve; but all its essential qualities and characteristics were developed in the course of the nineteenth century, particularly in its last two decades. — Michael Cox, Introduction to Victorian Tales of Mystery and Detection (1992)
Cox adds:
In this anthology, all the stories are mysteries, but not all are detective stories, either because they lack the central figure of the detective or because no formal process of investigation, deduction, and revelation takes place. But all the stories, in whichever category the purist prefers to place them, are branches of the same tree—the protean genre known in the nineteenth century as sensation fiction, a form of popular literature which, in another of Julian Symons's happy encapsulations, "has produced a few masterpieces, many good books, and an enormous mass of more or less entertaining rubbish."
Resources:
- Either because of—or in spite of—Cox's invoking of Symons, you might want to buy the book, sometimes known as Victorian Detective Stories, on sale HERE.
- And don't miss Doug Greene's fine anthology of mysteries from the same era, Detection by Gaslight, available HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

A Noir Film (or Maybe It Isn't) That Isn't Noir (or Maybe It Is)

FOLLOW ME QUIETLY.
Cast: William Lundigan, Dorothy Patrick, Jeff Corey, Nestor Paiva, Douglas Spencer, Charles D. Brown, Paul Guilfoyle, Edwin Max.
RKO. 1949. 59 mins.
For sale HERE.
Follow Me Quietly is a strange duck of a crime film; most of the time it quacks like what most people would expect from a noir film, and it certainly has feathers like one—deep, dark shadows, pouring rain, at least two desperate characters, and so on. But noir purists may be disappointed. As the reviewer at the Where Danger Lives weblog puts it:
. . . unlike Westerns, for example, which have both period and geography in common; or gangster films, which share specific character and narrative structures, noir films are considerably more ambiguous. There are few common threads that unite them (ambiguity being one of them), and there are certainly no hard and fast rules — as a matter of fact much of the writing about film noir in general endeavors, yet falls short, to establish a working definition. Scholars and historians even seem unable to agree as to whether film noir is a genre, movement, cycle, or style.
Nevertheless, for that reviewer, while Follow Me Quietly
. . . in some ways defies that image of a neat little package, it remains very much a film noir — and in some ways an explicit example.
The serial killer trope was fairly new in 1949 and wasn't overexposed to the extent it now has been. This film exploits that trope to the full, as an obsessed police detective pursues a murderer who could just as well be called The Ghost, rather than The Judge, his own name for himself. What's so maddening for the detective is that this killer manages to stay just one step ahead of his investigation.

There's a memorable scene that takes place on a dark, rainy night when what we've been led to believe is a mannequin suddenly stands up and ambles away—a wonderful moment that fulfills the potential of cinema to heighten experience.
So, is Follow Me Quietly an example of film noir? Watch it and decide for yourself.

Category: Crime films that might or might not be noir

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Levram Niatpac!

THE GOOD HUMOR MAN.
Cast: Jack Carson, Lola Albright, George Reeves, Jean Wallace, Peter Miles, Frank Ferguson, David Sharpe, Chick Collins, Eddie Parker, Pat Flaherty, Richard Egan.
Based very tangentially on The Saturday Evening Post short story "Appointment with Fear" (28 September 1946) by Roy Huggins.
Columbia. 1950. 80 mins.
"This guy must be a combination of Don Juan and Casanova! Who is he?"
The guy in question is . . . Jack Carson? Yup. Carson was always good, either in serious or comedic roles.
"You don't want any tutti-frutti in your eardrums, do you?"
Jim Beaver, on the Internet Movie Database, offers this summary:
Biff Jones [Carson] is a driver/salesman for the Good Humor ice-cream company. He hopes to marry his girl Margie [Albright], who works as a secretary for Stuart Nagel [Reeves], an insurance investigator. Margie won't marry Biff, though, because she is the sole support of her kid brother, Johnny [Miles]. Biff gets involved with Bonnie [Wallace], a young woman he tries to rescue from gangsters. But Biff's attempts to help her only get him accused of murder. When the police refuse to believe his story, it's up to Biff and Johnny to prove Biff's innocence and solve the crime.
There is a locked-room murder subplot that even has Biff thinking he's actually killed someone, but the best parts of the film involve frantic chases between Biff, Margie, Johnny and his pals (Captain Marvel Club members), and a criminal gang. Along the way, Jack gets to do some of the best doubletakes and mugging ever committed to celluloid.
"He makes more passes than Notre Dame."
The Good Humor Man is fast-paced, harmless fun.
Resource:
- For a dissenting opinion, there is Bosley Crowther's dour and condescending contemporary review in the New York Times HEREyou know, Bosley never could seem to lighten up.

Category: Comic crime films

"Full-Out Slapstick"

THE FULLER BRUSH GIRL.
Cast: Lucille Ball, Eddie Albert, Jerome Cowan, Carl Benton Reid, Arthur Space, Gale Robbins, Jeff Donnell, John Litel, Fred Graham, Lee Patrick, Sid Tomack.
Columbia. 1950. 87 mins.
For sale HERE.
"It only took you a year to finish that correspondence course."
"Yeah, but that was a six-month course."
Lucy never turned in a bad performance. In this film she gets to do full-out slapstick with her usual elan. And let's not overlook Eddie Albert, who manages to keep up with her.

Lucy gets fired from her job as a switchboard operator just when she and Eddie are about to get married and buy a house, so she tries her hand at selling cosmetics, which precipitates a whole concatenation of misunderstandings that culminate in Lucy and Eddie coming across not one but two dead bodies. The police take a dim view of such things, and it isn't long before Lucy and Eddie are on the run—not only from the cops but also a criminal gang.
On the Internet Movie Database, MCL 1150 writes:
Once [in] a while you're lucky enough to see a film for the very first time that you never heard of before that you simply end up loving. Such is The Fuller Brush Girl. Co-starring Lucille Ball and Eddie Albert, this is one very funny film. It was written by the late/great Frank Tashlin and plays out like a live action cartoon. And no wonder. Tashlin is one of the all-time greats in the field of animated cartoons. While not as prolific as Tex Avery, his cartoons are among some of the best ever made. It was once said that Frank Tashlin directed cartoons like films and made films like cartoons. The Fuller Brush Girl is a perfect example. While directed by Lloyd Bacon, the real soul of the movie is Tashlin, who basically comes up with inventive gag after great inventive gag. And all of them are worked out in live action to perfection. Tex Avery once said that it was funnier if something was done in live action. And he was right! Had this been an actual cartoon, it wouldn't have been as satisfying. Ball is her usual hilarious self and Albert is at his best here as her fiancĂ©. So if you think you've seen every 1940s-50s comedy worth seeing and have yet to see The Fuller Brush Girlthen you really have something to look forward to . . . .
The scenes with Lucy in disguise as a burlesque performer and, later, when she unwillingly swallows too much wine are hysterically funny.

Category: Comic crime films

A Not-So-Serious Brush with Death

THE FULLER BRUSH MAN.
Cast: Red Skelton, Janet Blair, Don McGuire, Adele Jergens, Donald Curtis, Arthur Space, Hillary Brooke, Ross Ford, Trudy Marshall, Nicholas Joy, Selmer Jackson, Jimmy Hunt (the Mean Widdle Kid).
Based on The Saturday Evening Post short story "Appointment with Fear" (28 September 1946) by Roy Huggins.
Columbia. 1948. 93 mins.
For sale HERE.
Red, recently fired from the sanitation department, tries his hand at door-to-door salesmanship, without much success. But there is some pain—e. g., the Mean Widdle Kid (one of Skelton's characters), who gives him a horrible time (ironic, since Red played the Kid on radio). And not only pain—Red manages to get himself designated as the prime suspect in a murder, an impossible crime in which the deadly weapon mysteriously disappears (actually it never appears in the first place—perplexing, huh?).

Before he can finally clear himself, Red and Janet Blair almost get rubbed out in a war surplus warehouse filled with explosives. Congratulations are due the stunt people, who definitely earned their paychecks on this picture.

Ray Faiola, on the Internet Movie Database, has nice things to say about the film with which we concur:
THE FULLER BRUSH MAN is, hands-down, Red Skelton's best film. The script is tight and packed solid with one liners. The supporting cast, especially Janet Blair and Don McGuire, are very personable (McGuire in a greasy sort of way, of course!). The scenario is perfectly balanced between the first half wherein Red tries to make something of himself and the second half after which a murder is committed in the home of the sanitation commissioner who fired Skelton. Like Sylvan Simon's WHISTLING pictures, there is an extended set-piece—this time in Red's apartment. But unlike the MGM comedies (poor MGM, they tried at comedy) the cutting, camera-work and staging are more fluid. And funnier. BUT all this is but a build-up to one of the great chase finales in pictures. And here is where co-scenarist Frank Tashlin really shows his stuff. The chase is a raucous knockabout affair with the gangsters, all played by top stunt players such as Dave Sharpe and Bud Wolfe, bounce and tumble like the Keystone Kops. And what really sells the chase is Heinz Roemheld's dizzy, pizzicato scoring. It is perfectly punctuated and wraps the entire finale up into a three-ring circus act. It is very interesting to compare the chase finale in FULLER BRUSH MAN to the chase finale in THE YELLOW CAB MAN. The latter sequence was scored by MGM cartoon music maestro Scott Bradley. But for some unconscionable reason, Bradley's music was completely dropped from the finale. Talk about a scotched opportunity. Never mind. See THE FULLER BRUSH MAN. It's Red's best. 
At one point Red refers to himself as "Philo Jones," a reference to society sleuth Philo Vance.
Oddly enough, this Red Skelton vehicle got its start as a hard-boiled private eye story in The Saturday Evening Post, but by the time the screenwriters (principally Frank Tashlin) got through with it there was no resemblance to the source material.

For you trivia hounds, the original story featured P. I. Stu(art) Bailey, played on TV a decade later by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., in the 77 Sunset Strip series. At almost the same time as The Fuller Brush Man was being filmed, a more serious movie featuring the Stu Bailey character (I Love Trouble with Franchot Tone in the lead) was also being lensed; it even had a few actors from the Skelton film (Janet Blair, Adele Jergens, Donald Curtis). Coincidence? We don't think so.

Category: Comic crime films

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Unpremeditated Entrepreneur

LARCENY, INC.
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Broderick Crawford, Jane Wyman, Jack Carson, Edward Brophy, Anthony Quinn, Harry Davenport, John Qualen, Grant Mitchell, Barbara Jo Allen, Jackie C. Gleason.
Based on the play The Night Before Christmas by Laura and S. J. Perelman.
Warner Bros. 1942. 95 mins.
For sale HERE.
"Weepy, I don't like the idea of going into a bank through the front door."
Edward G. plays J. Chalmers Maxwell, known to his associates as "Pressure." He and his not-so-bright pal Jug Martin (played to lunkheaded perfection by the greatly underrated Broderick Crawford) have just been released from prison and plan to go straight. All they need is some money to buy a dog track in Florida, but when Pressure applies for a loan at the bank he is turned down—the 'c' word: collateral. (Those were the days when bankers actually considered such things.)

Pressure figures that to get the dough he needs for his enterprise, why he'll just have to extract it from the very bank that turned down his application, nyah. But he'll need a cover, and finds it in a luggage shop located right next door. He buys the shop, not realizing until later that he has acquired a cash cow.
Oddly enough, in spite of a plethora of criminals, some with guns, nobody dies in this movie.

The entire cast is great, but this is still very much Edward G. Robinson's show.

Resource:
- If you'd like to read a detailed synopsis—with SPOILERS—go HERE.

Category: Comic crime films

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A "Detective" Reminisces

"The Detective's Tale."
By James L. Ford (1854-1928).
In Hypnotic Tales and Other Tales (1894), pages 35-43.
Online HERE.
"Yes; I've done a good many pretty slick bits of detective work in my time; but I think that's the very slickest I ever had a hand in."
There are detectives, and then there are "detectives".

Resource:
- We previously had a close encounter with Mr. Ford HERE.

Category: Satire

"There Is No Mystery About It"

MOTE HOUSE MYSTERY.
By Archibald Marshall (1866-1934) and Horace Annesley Vachell (1861-1955).
Dodd, Mead & Co.
1926. 306 pages. $2.00
[a.k.a. MR. ALLEN]
For sale HERE.
If you have a couple of hours to kill and don't care how, this might be the one for you:
[Full review] After reading . . . two preeminently "strong" books I demanded of the shelves something light, and was rewarded by those who are supposed to know with a new Archibald Marshall tale, "Mote House Mystery." Expecting to wander for several hours in rural England with this gentle and genial author, I was surprised and, yes, delighted to find myself engrossed in a mystery romance as original, as humorful, as thrilling as could be wished. Mr. Marshall has combined his understanding of countryside character with a real gift of suspense, and in a dual love story of a forty-eight year old bachelor and his charming nephew there is . . . bang!
Having read from galley proofs, I had credited it all to Mr. Marshall. Not so, I find in the catalogue. This is a collaborative volume. It is written by Archibald Marshall and Horace Annesley Vachell, and it has, to be sure, the best qualities of both. In the delightful periods and ramblings of Mr. Pollen, is the mind and pen of the gentle writer concerning English countrysides; in the character and ghoulishness of the mysterious "Mr. Allen" is the talent of the swifter story teller. This is a story for a good evening's entertainment, although, if it were not for the compelling humor and charm of Mr. Marshall, its excitement would occasionally be overwhelmingly macabre. ("The Editor Recommends," The Bookman, March 1926, page 89 - LINK)
[Full review] This novel is now wending its serial way through the pages of the London "Graphic" under the title of "Mr. Allen," a fair name for the book, which "Mote House Mystery" is not. There is no mystery about it. As soon as the story gets going (after the first hundred pages) we learn that the arch-villain is attempting to [SPOILER DELETED] in a most insidious manner, and the rest of the book explains how he is frustrated in this attempt and what eventually happens to him.
All this is well enough, but the eminent authors seem unable to decide whether they are writing one of those succulent truffles that keep England's lady novelists from the poorhouse, all about the dear sweet old bachelor who collects prints and loves to romp with the kiddies, and how he gives up the golden-haired lassie to the young fellow with the chest expansion; or whether they were writing a detective story. The compromise is like sarsaparilla: interesting, moderately pleasant, and not over-exciting. (Edmund Pearson, "Current Books," The Outlook, April 14, 1926, pages 571-572 - LINK)
Resources:
- Wikipedia has articles about normally mainstream authors Marshall HERE and Vachell HERE.

Category: Crime (not mystery) fiction

Friday, April 3, 2015

"It Has a Tabloid Mentality"

"A Month of the Theatre."
By Francis Fergusson (1904-86).
In The Bookman (November 1931), page 301.
Review of play adaptation of Payment Deferred by C. S. Forester (1899-1966).
Novel: 1926; play: 1931 [70 performances on Broadway]; film: 1932.
Review online HERE.
It's safe to say this critic wasn't too fond of crime fiction, theatrical or otherwise:
This thriller, imported with cast intact from England, is about a poisoning, committed before our eyes in the first act, expiated in acts two and three by the poisoner's sufferings, and avenged by the police after the end of the play, as we are told in the epilogue.
Like Grand Hotel, it has a tabloid mentality plus the relentless devices of modern realism.
William Marble, a small bank clerk who resembles H. G. Wells; his nervous daughter, and his faithful, worried wife, are portrayed to the life. None of the all too probable misfortunes that follow [SPOILER DELETED] are spared us, in all their detailed and painful working out.
The point of the evening is the excellent acting of Charles Laughton, who plays [SPOILER]. In his pussyfooting eagerness for [SPOILER], in his long pauses while he realizes calamity or plans an evasion, in his struggles with his sedentary fatness when he wants to turn quickly or get up from a chair, in his childish weeping on his wife's thin shoulder, he shows a command of both his body and his emotions, which is the real actor's gift, rare and precious.
Cicely Gates as his wife and Elsa Lanchester as his daughter are both subtle psychologists and neat performers, and the rest of the cast, the ugly settings, and the directing, are entirely convincing.
Such talents are worthy of better material than sensationalism, entertaining though the result may be to many. It is better than Grand Hotel in a similar genre.
Resources:
- Martin Edwards discusses Horatio Hornblower creator C. S. Forester's involvement with crime fiction HERE [warning: SPOILERS].
- The film version of the play, also starring Charles Laughton, is described HERE [warning: MORE SPOILERS], and a contemporary review of it [also with YOU KNOW WHATS] is HERE.

Category: Crime-themed plays

A Carolyn Wells Addendum

"Introduction to The Technique of the Mystery Story."
By Jon L. Breen (born 1943).
Ramble House Books website.
Online HERE.

You know the old saying - Those who can, do; those who can't, teach:
. . . [Carolyn] Wells’s commitment to formal detection, including a special fondness for locked rooms and impossible crimes, won her some prominent defenders. Ellery Queen (the Frederic Dannay half) once reported that John Dickson Carr, who had much admired her work in his youth, had ordered a complete set of her books to be shipped to his home in England. And there’s no doubt of her credentials as a devotee and student of the form. When she edited two early 1930s anthologies of best American mystery stories, apparently not thin-skinned about negative reviews, she included Dashiell Hammett in both, though the creator of the Continental Op and Sam Spade was hardly writing her kind of mystery.
Hardboiled Hammett wasn't above roughing up Wells - in print, anyway.
Wells’s greatest contribution to the genre was indisputably The Technique of the Mystery Story. Pronzini in 1001 Midnights (1986) deems it “far more readable today than her novels.” Barzun and Taylor pay a less backhanded compli­ment, finding her “extremely tough-minded and superbly critical.”
The book gives a remarkable picture of the state of detective fiction several years before the post-World War I dawn of the Golden Age with its rules of fair play to the reader. Wells discusses misuses of evidence like threads and footprints, remarks on the considerate and obliging weather that accompanies fictional murder, and catalogues those devices (e.g. the stopped watch and the missing will) that, while already considered hackneyed in 1913, still turn up occasionally today.  . . .
Resources:
- A brief bio of Jon L. Breen is HERE. For more about The Technique of the Mystery Story, go HERE; the 1929 hardcover edition is for sale HERE.

Category: Detective fiction criticism

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"You Can Break All the Laws Except Scientific Ones!"

"Murder Asteroid."
By Edmond Hamilton (1904-77).
Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1940.
Short-short story.
Online HERE.
The thing about irony is it's so . . . ironic:
"Hell, I won't get nervous now," he told himself. "This was the best way to do it—on some little planetoid like this where no one will ever land to find his body. If I'd done it in space and tossed his body out, it might have been found float-ing. But this way—"
He re-entered the cruiser, slammed shut the heavy door and shed his suit. He gazed with kindling eyes at the heavy sacks of metal.
"I'm worth a half-million dollars, soon as I get this stuff to Ceres spaceport," he exulted. "Me a rich man! I can take it easy, travel over the whole System in luxury. Liquor, women—"
He started up the rocket-motors and took off with a blast of fire.  . . .
Resource:
- We recently visited another of Hamilton's criminous SF stories HERE.
Ceres (lower left) compared to the Earth and Earth's moon.

Category: Science fiction (crime fiction division)