Tuesday, September 30, 2014


By Herbert Adams (1874-1952 [1958?]).
Online HERE.
The game of golf used to be one of the most popular, high-profile sports in the world. The fact that Agatha Christie used it as a background for some of her mysteries (e.g., Murder on the Links, Why Didn't They Ask Evans?) testifies to that. Not to be outdone, Christie's compatriot Herbert Adams made the most of the game's popularity in a good many of his own mysteries. The GAD Wiki characterizes Adams this way:
. . . an English writer of over fifty 'cosy' mystery novels between 1924 and 1958, which were often set in or around golfing competitions. He also wrote short stories, humorous verse and two other mystery novels under the pseudonym Jonathan Gray. His first series character was Jimmy Haswell, a London criminal lawyer, who featured in nine books.  . . .
Concerning The Chief Witness, here are some brief excerpts from recent evaluations; follow the links to fuller reviews:
. . . On the whole The Chief Witness is a rather entertaining read, and it's a book I can recommend to fans of Golden Age crime novels.  . . . — dfordoom, VINTAGE POP FICTIONS (August 15, 2013)
. . . As the foregoing may indicate, I have mixed feelings about the book, but overall I liked it sufficiently that I will give Adams another try.  . . . — Bob Houk, THE ADVENTURES OF BOB (August 18, 2013)
Here is more about a few other examples of Adams's fiction, most of which, according to several generations of reviewers, wasn't all that bad, but wasn't all that great either:

". . . we felt that we were being led on by a deliberately fostered expectancy of great doings just ahead which invariably failed to materialize." Full review HERE.

"This murder mystery is complicated by a clever impersonation." Review HERE.

"How Bruden came to his end and where the treasure lies concealed Jimmy discovers in a fashion which should not arouse the envy of Scotland Yard." Review HERE (go to page 223, top left).

"This tale gets off to a bad start and is rather confused, but there's some excitement at the end." Review HERE.
"[The book has] a rising young barrister with the instincts of a criminologist." Review HERE (Jump To page 364, left bottom).
"[The main character] demonstrates the futility of entrusting the responsibilities of Sherlock to a fellow of ordinary mental calibre instead of to an intellectual super-man." Review HERE.

~ ODDWAYS (1929):
"Two brothers are killed on the same evening and an innocent girl is held as a murderess." Review HERE.

". . . criminals are obvious from beginning." Review HERE.

"Adams's best to date."

"Time-Passer." Review HERE.

". . . average detective work." Review HERE. Online HERE.

"There is some nice detection of stride patterns and the time element of the crime and soon the list of suspects grows, until Bennion is able to apply the final rule that identifies the criminal." Review HERE.

"Average." Review HERE.

~ VICTORY SONG (1943):
"A 'time passer' is how I would describe the book, with nothing invidious intended." Review HERE.

". . . an intelligently written, if at times ordinary, detective story with a clever, but ultimately, simple plot, subtly placed clues and more than one eager attempt at confusing the reader by dangling a red herring in front of them – which made for a rewarding and satisfying read." Review HERE.

Online HERE.

~ THE JUDAS KISS (1955):
Online HERE.

". . . once we get to the actual detecting the story runs along nicely. More than one house guest has what they might see as good reason to act against the deceased, so most of them are suspected at one time or another and the solution roars up after an unexpected twist which certainly caught me by surprise. I regret to say however that on the whole this novel is not one of the best I have read." Review HERE. Online HERE.

- Five of Adams's novels are available as Text files at Project Gutenberg Australia HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Year One

When we inaugurated ONTOS a year ago (see our Mission Statement HERE), we had hoped to reach at least 500 posts after twelve months, but, alas, this brief note is only Number 435. Nevertheless, we optimistically aspire to surpass 1,000 by this time next year; only time will tell. In any event, we hope you have been enjoying ONTOS and will continue to visit us often.

Monday, September 15, 2014

"Beware of Trying to Rouse Our Pity and Terror with a Penny Whistle"

Edited by Frederick Stuart Greene (1870-1939).
Dodd, Mead & Co.
1917. 385 pages.
Anthology: 13 stories.
Online HERE and HERE.

Introduction - Edward J. O'Brien
1. Vance Thompson - "The Day of Daheimus"
2. Dana Burnet - "Rain"
3. Stacy Aumonier - "Old Fags"
4. Conrad Richter - "The Head of His House"
5. Vincent O'Sullivan - "The Abigail Sheriff Memorial"
6. Ethel Watts Mumford - "Easy"
7. Wadsworth Camp - "The Draw-Keeper"
8. Richard Matthews Hallet - "The Razor of Pedro Dutel"
9. Robert Alexander Wason - "Knute Ericson’s Celebration"
10. Mrs. Belloc Lowndes - "The Parcel"
11. Will Levington Comfort and H. A. Sturtzel - "Back O’ The Yards"
12. William Ashley Anderson - "The End of the Game"
13. Frederick Stuart Greene - "The Black Pool"

Who says every story has to have a happy ending? Certainly not the authors listed above, who deliberately set out to write stories with downbeat resolutions.
[Full review] . . . that insatiable devourer and tolerably complacent judge of the American short story, Mr. Edward J. O'Brien, . . . contributes an Introduction to certain feats of literary frightfulness assembled under the title "The Grim Thirteen." We are to take the collection as an exhibit in the supposititious case of the public (or the story-writer) against the American magazine editor, with his prejudice against "the unhappy ending." To qualify, each of these stories must be by an author whose work of another sort has been acceptable, and must have been rejected by some prominent magazine, on the sole ground of its grimness or unpleasantness.
Mr. O'Brien thinks it very sad that there should be any such principle or practice of rejection, and shudders at the thought of what Poe's fate might have been had he been born a generation too late. This is of a piece with his assumption not only that the American short story is our great contribution to literature, but that its masterpieces are now being produced in bulk.
We agree that the magazines are over-squeamish and over-timid about work of this sort. But we think they would be right in exacting of it far higher qualities of sincerity and force than of the amiable, more or less heartening product with which it must compete.
The day of artificial horrors—the day from which the genius of Poe flowered—we are well enough done with. Writers of talent and ingenuity may safely play upon our good-humored interest and easy sentiment: let them beware of trying to rouse our pity and terror with a penny whistle.
There is not a story in this group which can be fairly laid up against the editors who rejected them, not one with the indubitable touch of genius to lift it from the "grim" to the tragic. Half of them are written in the same style, the American Magazine or, let us say, Saturday Evening Post style, and might have been written by the same brisk, ingenious hand. — "Echoes and Interventions," THE NATION (December 20, 1917)
[Excerpts] An interesting experiment in the literary world is the publication of a book entitled The Grim Thirteen. It is made up of thirteen short stories that because of unconventionality of treatment, and not because of lack of merit, were rejected by leading fiction periodicals.  . . .
. . . It all grew out of a discussion as to whether, if Poe were living to-day, the American magazines would publish his stories. The general opinion of the gathering, story writers themselves, was that they would not. There is a taboo, it was maintained, against grim or gruesome stories in editorial circles, American editors believing that the public demand the happy ending.  . . .
. . . The thirteen short stories in The Grim Thirteen are examples of sincere imagination, unhampered by editorial considerations. They went their appointed way to the magazines and were found "unavailable," showing that these thirteen writers at least have found that some of their finest imaginative work could not achieve publication without modification.  . . .
 . . . We have heard it said that cross-sections of life, projected at random, are good "realism." But we ourselves are old-fashioned enough to like a little art . . . Possibly we are guilty of the modern sin of class-consciousness, possibly we are too conventional in our liking for technique and too unappreciative of pure psychology . . . . — "Chronicle and Comment: 'The Grim Thirteen' - The Short Story in America - Unhampered Imagination - One of the 'Thirteen' - Rejected Imagination," THE BOOKMAN (October 1917)
[Full review] A collection of thirteen gloomy little stories, the editor of the volume pluming himself on the fact that they all end badly. Mrs. Belloc Lowndes's contribution concerning a village in Champagne is almost too terrible for the average reader to be able to bear. — THE SPECTATOR (18 January 1919)
To recap. In his introduction, editor Fredrerick Stuart Greene explains, "In the selection of these thirteen stories, the first condition which each story had to meet was that of repeated rejection by American magazines. The thirteen stories which you are about to read have been tabooed by American editors, because they believe that you do not like realism, or unhappy romance." How deliciously gloomy! but can they possibly live up to such a lofty billing? . . . — VAULT OF EVIL Message Board
Category: General fiction (grim variety)

"He Is Unequal to the Point of Eccentricity"

By Tod Robbins (1888-1949).
Boni and Liveright.
1920. 256 pages.
Collection: 4 stories.
Online HERE.
1. "Silent, White and Beautiful"
2. "Who Wants a Green Bottle?"
3. "Wild Wullie, the Waster" (also online HERE)
4. "For Art's Sake"

Clarence Aaron Robbins had a penchant for the eerie and macabre which Hollywood, for one, exploited to the full (see HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE for screen adaptations); in spite of or perhaps because of this, in his lifetime Robbins went through five wives.

Contemporary literary critics, however, weren't too impressed with the early Robbins:
[Full review] Mr. Tod Robbins, who is an American, is also a dealer in horrors. He is less adroit than his British colleagues, but he works in a better tradition. Their master was Conan Doyle or even Gaboriau; his was Poe. And there is no doubt that he has an eerie fancy, great fertility of invention, and not a little psychological insight. But he is unequal to the point of eccentricity.
Two of his four narratives, Wild Wullie, the Waster and Who Wants a Green Bottle?, are simply inept. Silent, White and Beautiful, on the other hand, has an original and strangely vivid central idea. If the aim of this sort of story is to stun the reader for a moment, that aim is here achieved. The impulse of the protagonist, moreover, wild as the form it assumes, is well grounded in human nature.
For Art's Sake is below Silent, White and Beautiful in merit. But it, too, with all its monstrous details, is based on powerful and familiar motives. It is a fantastic reductio ad absurdum of the dehumanized cult of art and throws about well-known New York localities an air of lurking terror.
Thus, in his own kind, Mr. Robbins is no ordinary writer. If he is young he may have, in his peculiar manner, rather brilliant possiblities. But he must learn to exercise self-criticism or have his manuscripts edited by an honest friend. — "Real Terror and False," THE NATION (November 24, 1920)
[Full review] The introduction wags the book. It is written by Robert H. Davis. Having read these first pages, which are an amusing conversation with an elderly man on Boston common, you are so violently prejudiced in favor of the stories, that it seems almost unfair to turn critic. However, in spite of one of the cleverest of sponsors, the horror of murder, suicide, neurosis, and what not does not always seem sufficiently to convince. If these grotesque and morbid tales were just a bit better, they might even be great! But failing of greatness, they are so "horrible" as to be occasionally funny. — "Brief Reviews of New Books," THE BOOKMAN (February 1921)
- A Wikipedia article about Robbins that includes information about his imprisonment by the Nazis is HERE.
- The Robbins page at A GUIDE TO SUPERNATURAL FICTION is HERE and the ISFDb is HEREwhile the FANTASTIC FICTION page is HERE.

Category: Eerie fiction

Friday, September 12, 2014

"The Book Is Not a Detective Story: The Reader from the First Recognizes the Criminal"

By Mrs. Belloc-Lowndes (1868-1947).
Grosset & Dunlap.
1913 [U.K.], 1914 [U.S.]. 306 pages. $1.25
Online HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.
Filmed in 1927 (IMDb), 1944 (IMDb), 1953 (IMDb), 1965 (IMDb), and 2009 (IMDb).
Marie Adelaide Belloc-Lowndes wrote dozens of books, but only one earned her lasting fame, The Lodgerher take on Jack the Ripper. From three contemporary and one belated reviews:
[Full review] The motive of this story was undoubtedly suggested to Mrs. Lowndes by the series of murders of women which startled London a few years ago and suggested the presence of some insane man of "Jack the Ripper" type.
The story is very carefully worked out, and, although, it it necessarily ghastly, Mrs. Lowndes is too well trained a writer and too experienced an artist to allow the melodramatic element to usurp the dramatic, or to substitute crude horrors for the impression of a terrible tragedy. The story is well worked out [he repeated]. — "The New Books," THE OUTLOOK (March 21, 1914; go to page 650, top left)
[Full review] The Lodger, by Mrs. Belloc-Lowndes, is easily the best of the various mystery stories that this writer has produced. The real merit of it lies in the quietness with which it opens, without a hint of anything gruesome or uncanny; and then little by little we begin to connect certain events and places and to realise the utter grimness of a situation innocently brought about by a respectable middle-aged woman renting a room to a strange lodger. He seemed to have come to her like a special dispensation of Providence.
That very evening she and her husband, who had once been respectable family servants but were now too old to go back to their former work, had been reckoning up just how many shillings stood between them and abject poverty; and then the husband, yielding to that illogical desire which often comes when funds are low, to redeem his self-respect by some reckless expenditure, actually steps out of the house and pays a penny, one of their few, precious pennies, for an evening paper. You see, just at this time all London was excited by a series of atrocious and inexplicable murders, and the good man happened to have a young friend on the Secret Service force who had told him a few inside facts as to what the police were doing.
Now if he had not gone out for that paper, he would not have left the light turned high in the front hall and the Lodger would have passed the house without seeing the sign announcing furnished rooms. And such a wonderful lodger, too; to be sure, he had no luggage excepting one small, mysterious satchel, which he would not leave for an instant out of his hand; but he insisted on paying her double what she asked on condition that she would take no other lodgers than him.
So, happy in the possession of a month's rent in advance, the landlady descended to the dining-room to interrupt her husband in his perusal of the latest details of a fresh murder in Whitechapel.
Well, there is the situation; and the fine art by which, without unnecessary haste, without a word too much or too little, you are led to form a mental connection between the grim headlines of the newspaper and the identity of the Lodger upstairs entitles Mrs. Belloc-Lowndes to cordial recognition as an adept in this type of fiction. It satifies the reader's desire to be kept in a state of sustained suspense; and, what is much rarer, it satisfies him equally when the final disclosures have all been made.
The only weak point in the whole volume is the somewhat melodramatic and unlikely coincidence of having all the parties concerned meet by chance in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's Wax Works. — Frederic Taber Cooper, "The Art of Looking On and Some Recent Novels," THE BOOKMAN (April 1914go to page 209, bottom right)
[Full review] "In the long history of crime it has very, very seldom happened that a woman has betrayed one who has taken refuge with her." This is the text which Mrs. Lowndes has chosen to illustrate.
Mr. and Mrs. Bunting are highly respectable people, formerly servants, who take lodgers. Their house is empty and they are in pecuniary straits, when the lodger appears, without luggage except for a small handbag, and takes their four rooms. He is a quiet, eccentric gentleman, with a fondness for reading the Bible aloud to himself and a habit of walking out at night.
A series of terrible murders throws London into a panic. Gradually Mrs. Bunting comes to suspect, finally to be almost certain, that the lodger is the murderer. Her one instinct is to protect him. The nerves of wife and husband are kept on edge by the murders recurring every ten days, and by the frequent visits of Joe Chandler, a young detective, who is in love with Daisy Bunting.
The book is not a detective story: the reader from the first recognizes the criminal. Mrs. Lowndes is interested merely in studying the mental contortions of poor Ellen Bunting, suffering under her terrible secret. She writes in the spirit of impartial curiosity, without a trace of sympathy. The book is a clever monograph in the form of fiction, a job hardly worth while, and well done. — "Current Fiction," THE NATION (April 2, 1914)
[Full review of the 1953 movie tie-in] Reissue of classic piece based on Jack the Ripper case (Victorian London). - 40-year-old chiller has lost none of punch; still among the best. - Verdict: Reread it. — Sergeant Cuff, "The Criminal Record," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (May 2, 1953)
- ONTOS paid a previous visit to Mrs. Belloc-Lowndes HERE.

Category: Thriller fiction

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Full of Surprises So Varied and Extreme That They Make the Ordinary Flow of Descriptive English Look Rather Foolish"

By Louis Joseph Vance (1879-1933).
A. L. Burt.
1914. 315 pages.
A TV series was based on the character (IMDb).
The Lone Wolf: A Melodrama is Louis Joseph Vance's origin story for the character that made his writing career lucrative indeed. From three contemporary reviews, more or less:
[Full review] That very active and versatile and still young performer, Mr. Louis Joseph Vance, has, after his single excursion into realism, returned whole-heartedly, or least high-spiritedly, to that land of romantic adventure in which he has made himself a popular guide. Up to this time he has written, according to his own classification, one novel, eight romances, and three extravaganzas.
The subtitle of his new story seems to knock at the door of a fourth category. He uses the word melodrama, we suppose, not to belittle his work, but to place it. A melodrama is a deliberately conventional form of moral romance. Character in black and white, atmosphere in cloud and flame, action vainly struggling with the mandates of poetic justice—these are chief requirements.
It is now recognized that much skill is needed to employ this form at its best. Mr. Vance's story is really too slight to fit the term. It differs little from several of the earlier tales which he calls romances. Its general tone is of adventurous comedy. Its chief claim upon the august name of melodrama would lie in the conversion of the hero and the confusion of the villain and his accomplices, and an attempted infusion of serious "heart interest." The hero, to be sure, would have been disqualified as such in old-fashioned melodrama, by his profession; but we have got beyond the point of expecting heroism to set out from virtue. Many recent plays of the kind (for example, "The Master Mind," which has recently scored so marked a success) adopt the crook frankly as a new type of hero.
"The Lone Wolf" is understood to be the greatest and most mysterious member of the under-world. He operates in both continents, where his methods are recognized, but his identity remains unknown even to members of his own profession. He has magical skill in operating safes without cracking them.
The real beginning of the action finds him returned to Paris from a sensational coup in London which has put him in possession of some famous jewels belonging to a Parisienne. Scotland Yard is in pursuit; and at the same moment "the Pack," an organization of criminals more properly known as the "International Underworld Limited," identifies him as "the Lone Wolf," and attempts to force him to membership in their order.
The adventures that follow are neither more nor less plausible than is necessary in this kind of fiction. A great many thrillingly absurd things happen in rapid succession. A certain novelty lies in their happening after the "Lone Wolf," having met a girl, determines to reform. She is nurse to the consumptive Bannon, arch-villain, and the leader of "the Pack." Not until the end do we discover that [SPOILERS DELETED].
. . . The fatal weakness of the tale as melodrama is that this gentleman of crime and mystery is from the outset simply that good-humored and athletic and harmless young gentleman who has figured as hero in so many of Mr. Vance's yarns. — "Current Fiction," THE NATION (October 29, 1914; go to page 525, top left)
[Full review] Mr. Louis Joseph Vance would probably be the last person in the world to take offence at the implication that his stories are not to be taken too seriously. Indeed, it does no harm to confess that because his latest volume, The Lone Wolf, was approached in a mood of relaxation, it gave the reviewer a few hours of very genuine enjoyment.
To be frank, The Lone Wolf is a quite preposterous story set in a circumstantially accurate environment—that is to say, accurate in the sense that whether drawn from life or from imagination every inch of the background has been minutely visualised.
The hero of the title role is a waif who, on a certain stormy night, was flung as unceremoniously as one might fling a half drowned kitten—into Troyon's, a famous old, tumble-down, rickety labyrinth of a hotel—famous, even though "Badeker knew it not." It was here, as unpaid drudge and omnibus, that the wretched lad acquired, little by little, his craftiness, his dexterity, his unrivalled nimbleness in pilfering. Neither windows nor doors could shut him in; and soon he was a familiar and much respected personage in the lower circles of the Apaches of Paris.
And when in the course of time a really big thief, an Irishman by the name of Bourke, happens to find his way to Troyon's as a guest, and catches our hero in the act of purloining a ten franc gold piece, he takes the lad as an apprentice and incidentally gives him a lasting bit of advice, namely, to form no friendships: "It is the only safety for a thief, no friendships, and above all no women, no girls. That is the penalty which a successful thief must pay. The lonesome road has its drawbacks, lad—it's damn lonesome!"
Such is the opening of Mr. Vance's story, the substance of which deals with the history of the lad who chooses to become a Lone Wolf, and his adventures both before and after the time when he disobeys the warning against making friends with a woman, are full of surprises so varied and extreme that they make the ordinary flow of descriptive English look rather foolish.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that if in an idle hour you want simply to be amused with a tale of extravagant adventure, that does not suddenly jolt you out of your pleasant dream by an awkward blunder a break in the pleasant continuity of conviction, you will get about what you really want in The Lone Wolf— Frederic Taber Cooper, "Some Novels of the Month," THE BOOKMAN (November 1914; go to page 311, top left)
[Full review of the 1929 reissue] The original glamour is not quite there when, after fifteen years, we reread "The Lone Wolf." Mr. Vance's story is a trifle dated; for all its vigor it is not really of our time. It is often vivid, often ingenious, but it is not good enough to be considered a classic of the literature of crime.
Furthermore, the criminal as protagonist never seems to make for the best story and the most satisfactory dénouement. The detective as protagonist is, apparently, the most effective way of portraying conventional crime. Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Thorndyke, Father Brown, Philo Vance—all these stand a better chance than "The Lone Wolf" of being remembered twenty-five years from now. — "The New Books," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (August 17, 1929; go to page 64, left middle)
- There's a THRILLING DETECTIVE article about The Lone Wolf HERE.
- Two Wikipedia articles about Louis Joseph Vance and his fictional detective are HERE and HERE.
- Previous ONTOS encounters with Vance are HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

"He Has Discovered At Least One New Trick in the Detective Story Writer's Bag"

By Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933).
Grosset & Dunlap.
1925. 316 pages. $2.00
Online HERE, HERE, and HERE.
Filmed in 1926 (IMDb) and 1933 (IMDb).
The House Without a Key, the first Charlie Chan novel, has been reprinted and commented upon many, many times in the past ninety years, so we'll confine ourselves to contemporary reviews:
[Full review] Readers of "Seven Keys to Baldpate" will not be surprised to find in Mr. Biggers's new tale an entertaining story well told, with a dash of humor to give spice to its mystery, and skilfully sketched in background to lend glamour to its incidents.
By setting his narrative in Hawaii Mr. Biggers has achieved a double purpose:—he has lent plausibility to the informalities of its episodes and he has given it a jocular cast by his depiction of the transformation of Brahmin New England character under the insidious influences of climate and beauty. His Miss Minerva, product of super-Boston culture, whose alarmed relatives send out her no less aristocratic nephew, John Quincy Winterslip, to rescue her from dangerous dalliance in dolce far niente Waikiki, and John Quincy himself, with his allegiances, his inhibitions, and his strain of the roaming Winterslip blood leading him on to adventure after adventure in his search of a clue to the murder of his uncle, Dan Winterslip, are more vividly realized characters than those that people the great ruck of mystery tales.
Mr. Biggers has a nice turn for a humorous situation—the closing incident of his book is delightfully amusing—and he has discovered at least one new trick in the detective story writer's bag. We find his Chinese detective a trifle wooden, but he preserves a becoming modesty, and he shares honors in the end with another. Altogether an interesting tale. — "The New Books," THE SATURDAY REVIEW (May 2, 1925; scroll to page 732, top left)
[Full review] A detective story; a murder mystery, in the unusual setting of Honolulu, and with the further novelty of a pleasing Chinese detective. The reader of the book is in for two or three hours of genuine entertainment. By the author of "Seven Keys to Baldpate" and other good stories. The price is also a mystery; probably $2. — "Notes on New Books," THE OUTLOOK (May 13, 1925)
[Full review] Only the strong-minded will put down this book before the last page, and then they will be sorry. It is a vivid, brilliantly written thriller, with a mysterious murder—the motive, marriage-plus-money.
We are introduced to the Boston family of Winterslip, five of whom are the principal figures in the exciting drama, which is enacted at Waikiki (Hawaii).
It is stated that Honolulu is chiefly peopled with New Englanders—"Puritans with a touch of sun," always yearning toward the lazy latitudes.
Dan Winterslip, a rich old retired "blackbirder," lives at Waikiki in the House without a Key—a great rambling house which would shock sedate Bostonians as "too lurid to be quite respectable."
Miss Minerva Winterslip, from Boston, staying with Dan, had been to a native Hawaiian feast or luau, thus satisfying a dear desire. It was a moonlight night, fascinating; and leaving her car on the kerb she strolls up to the house. Gently she pushes open the unlocked door admitting to Dan's great living-room, and closes it quietly so as not to wake him—over the polished floor on tiptoe, half-way to the hall door. Then she stops. Not five feet away she sees the luminous dial of a watch, worn on someone's wrist who thinks he is hidden . . . Dan is murdered.
What follows—the clues, the detectives and the rest—is handled admirably. And over all is the atmosphere of romance and the colour of life. Mr. Biggers writes so well that we forget everything but the unravelling of his mystery. — "Novel Notes," THE BOOKMAN [U.K.] (October 1926)
- A spoilerless Wikipedia article about the book is HERE.
- Biggers's first novel was scrutinized on ONTOS HERE.

Category: Detective fiction

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

"The Melodramatic Development of the Latter Pages Stretches the Rubber Band of Suspense to Its Limit. It Might Snap."

By Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933).
1913. 408 pages.
(Samuel French's theatrical edition: 1914, 105 pages. Subtitled: "A Melodramatic Farce in A Prologue, Two Acts, and An Epilogue.")
Play version by George M. Cohan (1878-1942) premiered in Hartford, Conn., September 15, 1913.
Filmed many times: 1917 (IMDb), 1925 (IMDb), 1929 (IMDb), 1935 (IMDb), 1946 (IMDb), 1947 (IMDb), and 1983 (IMDb).
Online HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE. Play edition is HERE.
Earl Derr Biggers is famous for his Charlie Chan mysteries; Seven Keys to Baldpate was his first novel, but the wise and unpredictable Chinese-American detective is conspicuous by his absence.
A famous author comes to a summer mountain resort in the dead of winter, determined to find peace and quiet to write his next book. But before his first night is out, a steady stream of unexpected visitors begins to fill the hotel ... men and women with stories of love, loss, and flight ... none of them telling the truth. Before the week is out, there will be gunfire, bribery, fights in the snow, and hidden truths unmasked. "Seven Keys to Baldpate" is a mystery that will leave you guessing to the end. Earl Derr Biggers penned "Seven Keys to Baldpate" long before he created his most famous character, Chinese detective Charlie Chan, yet in its day it was a popular best-seller and became the source for no less than seven films. — Wildside Press description
Biggers's freshman effort has always enjoyed mixed reviews:
[Full review] Compounded of the prescribed ingredients to make a best-seller, Seven Keys to Baldpate would seem destined to appeal to the large public that enjoys running as it reads. The author not only takes up confidently the tried properties of the juggling story-teller, which may be grouped under the two heads of laughter and suspense, but he has the humorous temerity to pose himself vicariously as the hero.
Billy Magee is a popular novelist who has become bored of writing and drawing large royalties from this very kind of book. Toward the Christmas season he decides to seclude himself far from Broadway in a mountain summer hotel, which is closed and unoccupied.
His intention is to settle in solitude and compose a really serious novel. Through a friend, whose father owns the hotel, he receives the first key to Baldpate. Almost immediately his isolation is broken by a second person, who also has received a key and who also wishes to withdraw from the world's madding crowd.
In rapid succession other people with keys arrive at Baldpate mysteriously. Among them is a college professor, who confesses that the newspapers have driven him to cover, because he declared that one peroxide blonde was worth twenty suffragettes.
Another is an adorable young lady, accompanied by a vulgar woman whom she addresses as "Mamma." Also there are a political boss and his henchman.
Additional strange persons prowl about the hotel until six of the seven keys are accounted for. To say that there is a package containing two hundred thousand dollars in the hotel safe, and that each of the seven persons wants it, or has it and loses it, through a series of galloping chapters, is to go far enough in despoiling the author's right to tell his own story.
If his book had remained farce or comedy from restless start to finish perhaps he would have revealed more individuality even in a work frankly designed for popular amusement. The melodramatic development of the latter pages stretches the rubber band of suspense to its limit. It might snap. Then, the indisputable political moral of the culminating climax shows how far the author has strayed from the path on which he first started. Yet he leads beguilingly; and this is the day of uplift in all things, including moving pictures. — "New Books by New Writers," THE BOOKMAN (June 1913)
[Full review] Novelist William Magee comes to spend a winter at an isolated summer resort in order to write his opus in solitude. Instead, he finds the supposedly deserted hostelry peopled with a colorful cast of characters, all intent on a mysterious McGuffin locked in the hotel safe. A beautiful and elusive woman draws him into the chase. The novel starts off well, wittily told and intriguing, but bogs down at the end. The mystery's ultimate solution seems prosaic and its long, narrative explanation dull. — Leah A. Zeldes, MANYBOOKS (2010)
George M. Cohan in 1910.
- The GAD Wiki page for Biggers is HERE.
- A lengthy article about the play [WARNING! SPOILERS] is HERE.
- A collection of generally favorable reviews is HERE.

Category: Mystery fiction (farce division)

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Three Dr. Thorndykes

Media portrayals of R. Austin Freeman's brilliant Dr. Thorndyke have been few and far between. Only three actors have played Thorndyke on screen (IMDb): Peter Copley, John Neville, and Barrie Ingham.
Peter Copley (1915-2008), at right
John Neville (1925-2011)
Barrie Ingham (b. 1932)
Thorndyke, a short-lived black-and-white TV series produced by the BBC, followed Thorndyke's first screen appearance in a one-off production of "The Case of Oscar Brodski" for the anthological Detective series. Matthew Lee at ACTION TV ONLINE explains what happened:
[Excerpts only] Richard Austin Freeman's fictional Edwardian detective Doctor John Evelyn Thorndyke first appeared in the popular Detective anthology series in July 1964 in an adventure entitled "The Case of Oscar Brodski." The story, which concerned an investigation into the suspicious activities of Silas Hickler at a London railway station, featured character actor Peter Copley in the leading role. The popularity of this edition of Detective safely saw that a series followed a mere three months later.
. . . The programme was short-lived (six fifty-minute editions were the sole output), and the series has disappeared in the memory of viewers over the forty years since its transmission. The series was not exported or commercially exploited and is not available in any format. — Matthew Lee, ACTION TV ONLINE (2004) (link now seems to be dead)
. . . which is really a shame. You could once find full descriptions of all the episodes at ACTION TV; the seven installments were:

"The Case of Oscar Brodski" 7/6/1964. Story online HERE.
"The Old Lag" 10/03/1964. Story online HERE.
"A Case of Premeditation" 10/10/1964. Story online HERE.
"The Mysterious Visitor" 10/17/1964. Story online HERE.
"The Case of Phyllis Annesley" 10/24/1964. Story ["Phyllis Annesley's Peril"] online HERE.
"Percival Bland's Brother" 10/31/1964. Story ["Percival Bland's Proxy"] online HERE.
"The Puzzle Lock" 11/07/1964. Story online HERE.

When The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes series came along, Dr. Thorndyke, as befitting his rival status, appeared twice, being played by two different actors: John Neville, who brought that combination of gravitas and arch demeanor which best characterizes Freeman's character, and Barrie Ingham, whose portrayal pales beside Neville's:

~ "A Message from the Deep Sea" 9/20/1971. IMDb. Story online HERE.
 ~ "The Moabite Cipher" 3/26/1973. IMDb. Story online HERE.
- Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive article about Dr. Thorndyke HERE.
- Another ONTOS article about our favorite "medical jurispractitioner" and Holmes rival is HERE.

Category: Detective fiction