THE CRIME OF MY LIFE, by Marv Lachman
A forgotten bibliomystery (it probably was little known when it was published) is The Case of Mr. Cassidy by William Targ (Phoenix Press, 1939, with Lewis Herman). The murder of a bibliophile is the fourth in a series of Chicago murders by a killer the newspapers have dubbed “The Fiend.” Targ’s detective, Hugh Morris, is also a bibliophile, well described as a “delver into the entombed word-coffins of the ages, a seeker out of the curious and rare in literature.”
He is also a gourmand and eccentric in the Nero Wolfe mode. There are references to rare books and Chicago people of letters such as Vincent Starrett. Chicago’s summer heat is well pictured, and there is a good scene of a chase in the Art Institute.
Balanced against the book’s good features are some typical of Phoenix Press, its publisher. We have nationalistic stereotyping, dubious police procedure, and clumsy use of language. For example, “solvent” is used twice for “solution” regarding the solving of the crime. Elsewhere, we read sentences such as “The air was pregnant with a feeling of incipient portentousness.” As a whole, this book is worth reading, for the subject matter, setting, and a surprise – albeit unfair– solution that involves a gathering of all suspects.
Though Gwendoline Butler’s first mystery was published in 1956, I had not read her until I read Dine and Be Dead (Macmillan, 1960; published in the U.K. as Death Lives Next Door, Geoffrey Bles, 1960). It is the best book I’ve read at conveying the atmosphere of Oxford, its streets, its buildings, and its perpetual students.
Too bad Butler’s mystery plot does not match her setting. She has a promising start, with many people realizing that they are being followed by a strange man. Of course, in those pre-stalking days, no one bothers to confront him or call the police. From there, the book becomes a parade of eccentric characters, and the solution by Butler’s Inspector Coffin is psychological with few clues and little detection, none of it fair.
The Other David (Dodd Mead, 1984) by Carolyn Coker is a good, if overlong, thriller about art restoration. The detection is minimal, with the identity of the killer disclosed midway through the book. Still, there are surprises and a portrait that keeps appearing and reappearing. The ending is supenseful with, praise be, a heroine, Andrea, who does not have to be rescued from danger.
The ‘McGuffin’ in Sydney Fowler’s The Bell Street Murders (George Harrap, 1931; in the US as by S. Fowler Wright, Macaulay, 1931) is the invention of a movie process that dispenses with the need for film. This invention, which is not convincing and involves what appears to be shaky science, requires some stretching to see it as a precursor to the VCR or the DVD.
At page 68, Fowler changes a straight-forward detective story into one in which he speaks to the reader directly and awkwardly attempts to be humorous. Fowler also intrudes with his political views. He is a libertarian who is strongly opposed to government, even the police.
Fowler’s language is often clunky. He redundantly writes of a “first inception” and has someone ask, “What evil thing was without in this house of death?”
There are two murders, the second with a dying message, but the solution is not fair. There is an exciting ending, but it seems designed to allow Fowler to write a sequel to this book. I’ll need a strong recommendation to try any more books by Fowler.
During the height of their popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I read several of the mysteries of the Swedish couple Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I was not impressed. Thirty years later, I read their The Laughing Policeman (Pantheon, 1970) because it has been selected as one of the books to be read by the discussion group of which I am a member. I even agreed to lead the discussion. Only after finishing the book did I learn, to my surprise, that it had been an Edgar winner as Best Novel for its year.
The Laughing Policeman was readable enough. In fact, the beginning was quite “grabbing” as policemen discover a Stockholm bus in which nine people, the driver and eight passengers, have been shot to death. There is no apparent motive. Martin Beck leads the detectives investigating the crime, but he is clinically depressed and provides little leadership. His marriage is breaking up, but no good reason is given; it’s attributed to “boredom and routine.” The details regarding Beck’s personal life add little to the book.
There’s much dialogue among the police detectives, but, as it’s often the sort of chatter one hears around the water fountain, it doesn’t add much either. The solution is not convincing in either its use of clues (not fair-play) or psychology. The killer is not even a character in most of the book but is brought in near the end.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö were avowed communists whose announced goal was to use the crime novel to analyze society. In an essay Wahlöö once wrote that he wanted to use crime fiction “as a scalpel cutting upon the belly of an ideologically pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeoisie type.”
Fortunately, they don’t use all those stock leftist phrases in their book, and, in fact, there is less politics than in some of their other books. The book does start with an anti-U.S. Vietnam demonstration. Because over 400 police officers have been sent to protect the U.S. embassy, according to the authors there are eight murders committed elsewhere in Stockholm during the time of the demonstration.
If that were true, Stockholm would have a higher murder rate than any American city. The Swedish couple certainly has not given us a picture of the peace-loving Swedish society about which I’ve read elsewhere. I wonder who’s right.
THE ROAD TO PERDITION (2002) is based on a graphic novel (I’ve overcome a tendency to call it a "comic book") by Max Allan Collins. It’s about a hit man in the closing days of prohibition who is superbly played by Tom Hanks. Unfortunately, the script never makes it convincing how (or why) a decent person become a killer for the mob. If Collins’s point is that anyone can become a killer, that is a concept I don’t accept.
Like so many recent films, this one has a very high body count and much shooting and bloodshed. With the exception of the Hanks character and his son, most of the people are not very interesting. The ending is predictable, telegraphed by scenes at the beginning of the movie. The best thing about the movie is the superb photography of Conrad Hall, who died in 2003.
THE CASE OF THE SILK STOCKING on Masterpiece Theatre is an obvious attempt to modernize Sherlock Holmes, mostly by having Dr. Watson engaged to an American psychoanalyst. That allows for inclusion of sexual fetishes, but not on the part of Holmes.
However his drug addiction is given more weight than it deserves. In fact, the show starts with him in a Chinese opium den and later provides a graphic description of his “shooting up” cocaine. He is already working on this case, so he can’t have the excuse usually given by Conan Doyle: boredom between cases. His addiction was a minor part of the Holmes canon. Masterpiece Theatre’s attempt to sensationalize it is poor drama and not socially responsible in a society in which drug use is such a problem.
The plot involving the serial killing of young women is interesting enough, but the solution involves one of the hoariest gimmicks in mystery fiction, one that I thought had been laid to rest 75 years ago.
BLONDE INSPIRATION (1941), an MGM “B” picture, is not a mystery, but it is the best – and only– movie I can think of, except for HAMMETT, regarding a pulp writer. Though he has ambitions to write historical fiction, John Shelton writes for a Western pulp, Smoky Trails Magazine. Four-cents-a-word is mentioned as the top rate being paid, and pseudonyms are important because the con-men who publish the magazine get their writers to use a variety of names, even trying to prevent Shelton from seeing his name in print. Albert Dekker is the publisher and Virginia Grey his secretary, who develops a crush on Shelton. Donald Meek has several hilarious scenes as an alcoholic writer for the pulps.
EDITORIAL POSTSCRIPT: For Esmeralda’s take on the Holmes movie, go here. For other installments of Marv's column, go here.
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