FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE - Mystery Commentary by Mike Nevins
A dear friend died Thanksgiving morning, 2004. Cancer. His name was Carlos Burlingham and he was a half-nephew of Genaro Hopley-Woolrich. During the early 1940s when he was a teen, he lived with his Tio Genaro in Mexico for close to two years. I met and began taping with Carlos six years ago. He was the only person I’ve ever met with living memories of the mysterious Anglo-Latino whose only son was Cornell Woolrich, the Hitchcock of the written word. Without Carlos we would know nothing of Genaro except the sparse and unreliable things Woolrich said or is said to have said about him now and then. Muchas gracias, amigo, y buena jornada.
Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, the cousins whose series character and joint byline was Ellery Queen, were both born in 1905, about nine months apart. Earlier this year, on April 28th, the day of the annual MWA dinner, a symposium was held at Columbia University honoring the centenary of their birth.
My topic at the centenary symposium was how Fred’s and Manny’s separate gifts functioned in their collaboration. Fred, as most mysteryphiles know, created the skeletons for the Ellery Queen novels and stories, while Manny put flesh on the bones. Almost anything could inspire one of Fred’s plots, but when he was young and Ellery Queen was in his first period, he was often inspired by other detective novels. Anyone who’s familiar with Sherlock Holmes and has read the Queen novels published between 1929 and 1935 – the ones with a nationality in each title, the ones where Ellery was modeled on S.S. Van Dine’s insufferable egghead Philo Vance – is aware that there’s a recurring gimmick in several of those novels that Fred clearly borrowed from Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear.
But very few readers today remember F. Van Wyck Mason (1897-1978), whose series sleuth was military intelligence officer Hugh North. But if you read The Vesper Service Murders (1931), second in the long series of North novels, you find it contains the germs of several early Queen plots. Its clue of the train conductor’s ticket punch became central to The Tragedy of X (1932); its rural climax with North and everyone else in the cast menaced by a forest fire is echoed in The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933); and the color-blindness gimmick was the grandfather of all the variations Fred played on that theme throughout the more than 40 years he spent conjuring up conundrums for his character. Why couldn’t I have discovered this obscure fact while Fred was alive?
If you grew up in the Fifties and would like to revisit some of that decade’s TV series at very little cost, drop into the next Dollar Tree store you pass and check out the DVD bin. I did this the other day and walked away with discs containing selected episodes of Mr. & Mrs. North, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (the Ronald Howard series), Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu and The Third Man. At a buck apiece!
I haven’t played any of these yet, but I did watch the contents of another dollar disc from the same source, containing four episodes of the German Flash Gordon series of 1953-54. This cult item has pretty much the same relation to conventional science-fiction that Harry Stephen Keeler has to conventional crime fiction, a fact which may explain why it’s been one of my guilty pleasures for half a century. Flash in this series was played by Steve Holland: no relation to Savage Steve, the director, but a tall handsome blond with a remarkable resemblance to Kirk Douglas who spent most of his career doing cover art for paperbacks and posing for his colleagues, notably as the model for Doc Savage. I got to spend some quality time with him in his New York apartment and later in Albuquerque, where he died several years ago. I can’t believe that I just bought several episodes that I haven’t seen since my teens and paid so little for them. The transfers to DVD are far better than anyone could expect at this price. Now if only the mystery series from the Dollar Tree bin turn out to look this nice!
This column first appeared in Mystery*File 47, February 2005, in slightly different form. Other installments of this column can be found by going here.
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