FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE - Mystery Commentary by Mike Nevins.
I am one of the six people in America who have never read a Stephen King novel. But at a recent library sale I picked up a copy of Danse Macabre (1981), the nonfiction book in which King celebrates the horror genre in the novels, stories, movies and TV series of his formative years. Turns out he defines horror very broadly to include what many of us would call suspense or noir – and includes among his favorite authors in that category several of my own. He particularly likes Psycho and several other Robert Bloch suspensers, describing them as “a powerful series of offbeat novels, which are only surpassed by the novels of Cornell Woolrich.” Much later in his book, while rhapsodizing over the novels of Ira Levin, he says: “The only other writer...who had that wonderful ability to totally ambush the reader was the late Cornell Woolrich ... but Woolrich did not have Levin’s dry wit.” Whoever compiled the index for Danse Macabre missed both of these references to the Hitchcock of the written word (which are on pages 41 and 281 respectively) but caught a third (page 218), in which King praises the episode of TV’s anthology series Thriller based on the classic Woolrich story “Guillotine.” If I ever do an updated edition of First You Dream, Then You Die, I must remind the publisher to ask King for a blurb.
Hitchcock’s VERTIGO the inspiration for an episode of a TV Western show? Sounds impossible, but it demonstrably happened. “Incident at Alabaster Plain” (January 16, 1959) was the second broadcast episode of the classic Rawhide series starring Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood. It’s a tad slow but has some good guest stars – Mark Richman, Martin Balsam and, I kid you not, Troy Donahue – and features a fine action climax as our stars shoot it out with killers who have taken over a frontier monastery. With his men wiped out, Richman as the psychotic gang leader runs up the stairs to the bell tower, pursued by Eastwood, and – well, you remember how Kim Novak wound up in VERTIGO. The first season of Rawhide is now available on DVD, and well worth buying too.
It’s well known that Hitchcock was an avid reader of crime and suspense fiction but would you believe that the foremost Soviet film-maker was too? According to Marie Seton’s Sergei M. Eisenstein: A Life (1952), the director of POTEMKIN, ALEXANDER NEVSKY and IVAN THE TERRIBLE collected Van Dine, Christie and other classic mystery novelists and filled the margins of his copies with extensive annotations in English, French, German and Russian. If we accept Seton’s account, Eisenstein studied the whodunit from the viewpoint of Christian mysticism, which in his last decades he believed in fervently, or at least fervently wished he could believe in. He equated the search for truth in detective fiction with the search for the Holy Grail in Christian legend, and took the position that the great detectives of fiction discover the truth by intuition rather than reason. Has anyone ever thought of collecting his notes on the genre as a book?
While I’m in a question-posing mood, here’s another. What world-famous mystery writer first created James Bond? Who wrote the story that begins: “With a serious effort James Bond bent his attention once more on the little yellow book in his hand. On its outside the book bore the simple but pleasing legend, ‘Do you want your salary increased by L300 per annum?’” No, 007 is not about to hit M for a raise and the author of these lines is not Ian Fleming, it’s Agatha Christie. Her Bond is a silly-ass young Brit with a hoity-toity fiancee and a stolen jewel on his hands, and “The Rajah’s Emerald” (first collected in England in The Listerdale Mystery, 1934, and over here in The Golden Ball, 1971) tells how he disposes of both.
Has anyone ever heard of an Ian Fleming spy novel called You Asked for It? It’s the Popular Library paperback edition of Casino Royale, published in 1955 when Fleming was all but unknown. “If he hadn’t been a tough operator, Jimmy Bond would never have risked” something or other, we are informed by the blurb on the back cover. “But it was toughness that had landed Jimmy his job with the Secret Service.” I suspect that the blurb alone makes this rare softcover worth a pretty penny more than the 8 1/3 cents I paid for it almost forty years ago in a secondhand store in upstate New York. I wish I had a few paperbacks whose blurbs extolled the toughness of other hardboiled ops like Hank Merrivale, Al Campion and Herc Poirot!
Wanna hear about another strange paperback I picked up for pennies in my salad days? Murder Is Insane by Glenn M. Barns, a Jonathan Press digest-sized reprint of the 1956 hardcover edition, is clearly marked “Unabridged” on both the front cover and the inside title page. Buried amid the fine print of the copyright page, however, is the casually dropped news: “This book has been cut.” Small wonder I’ve never read the book.
Martin Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED, released a few weeks ago, strikes me as one of the most powerful films in the long career of arguably the finest living American director. On the off chance that someone who stumbles upon this column has read nothing about the movie, I should mention that it stars Leonardo Di Caprio as a young cop serving as a police mole inside Boston’s Irish mob and Matt Damon as Leo’s Academy classmate and the mob’s mole inside the force, the one spy reporting to top cop Martin Sheen and the other to gangster chief Jack Nicholson. It’s exceptionally violent and also exceptionally complex, with the climax so abrupt that I had to go on the Web to find out who fired the last shot that blew away the head of – but I’d be a toad if I said any more.
– Francis M. Nevins, October 2006
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