FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE - Mystery Commentary by Mike Nevins.
There must have been others, but the only movies shot in Yiddish that I’ve ever heard of are the three that were made by cult director Edgar G. Ulmer in 1938-39, with actors from the Yiddish theaters of New York’s Lower East Side and locations borrowed from a Catholic monastery in rural New Jersey. Turner Classic Movies ran all three several months ago.
So far I’ve seen only the first, which in Yiddish is called YANKEL DER SCHMIDT and in English THE SINGING BLACKSMITH. The title role is played by a Lower East Side actor named Moishe Oysher.
Why should any mystery lover care? Because to my huge surprise I discovered that Yankel as a teen is played by another fugitive from the Yiddish theater named Hershel Bernardi. Yep, the same Herschel Bernardi who twenty years later played Lt. Jacobi opposite Craig Stevens as Peter Gunn. Wasn’t Jacobi the first overtly Jewish cop in any TV detective series? I’m told that Dick Tracy’s sidekick Sam Catchem was meant to be Jewish but as portrayed by Joe Devlin opposite Ralph Byrd in the Tracy series of 1951-52, he certainly isn’t.
By the end of World War II the most prolific living English author was almost certainly John Creasey, who in less than fifteen years had written more than 200 novels starring Inspector Roger West of Scotland Yard, The Hon. Richard Rollison (The Toff), the slightly dishonorable John Mannering (The Baron), the adventurous Patrick Dawlish, the team of secret agents headed by Dr. Palfrey, and the undercover operation known as Department Z, not to mention dozens of nonseries thrillers and Westerns and boys’ books.
He was well known and widely read in England but unheard of in the U.S. A few years after the war he came over to find out why American publishers weren’t buying his books. Joan Kahn, the legendary editor behind Harper’s line of mysteries, read some of Creasey’s detective thrillers and faulted them for lacking the emotional element that American readers demanded. I suspect she was thinking of Cornell Woolrich, who was then as he is today the titan of emotional suspense.
In any event Creasey listened to her, rewrote some of his recent Inspector West books for the American market, and quickly became a prestigious Harper author, published alongside fellow Englishmen Nicholas Blake and Julian Symons and Andrew Garve. In the Sixties, now rich and famous and an Edgar winner with a dozen or more books a year being published by several American houses under several different bylines, he began not only rewriting but updating dozens of the detective and espionage thrillers from his first decades as an author.
A huge mistake! How do I know? Because thanks to friends like Bob Adey and Bob Briney, I’ve been able over the years to track down a cross-section of the original unretouched versions of his early Department Z and Toff and Roger West novels, which are all but impossible to find today.
The writing is extremely objective and stiff-upper-lippish and lacks the emotional resonance of the hundreds of novels he wrote after his encounter with Joan Kahn, but the material about international politics in the Thirties and life in wartime London makes them so much more readable than the watered-down updates.
Two examples will have to suffice. Holiday for Inspector West (1945) features a lengthy sequence where West and a contingent of cops lay siege to a gang headquartered in a complex of arches supporting a wartime railway bridge and intended to shelter Londoners whose homes had been bombed. In Inspector West Regrets (1945) Roger and his sergeant find themselves in a gun battle with gangsters in two connected air-raid shelters built back-to-back in the rear gardens of two houses in parallel streets.
I’d love to see all of Creasey’s wartime thrillers published over here exactly as he first wrote them, including the bits we’d certainly laugh at over here. One more example: In The Toff Goes to Market (1942) the series character whom Anthony Boucher once described as “faintly Saintly” is pitted against a black-market kingpin named, I kid you not, Barbicue!
I’ve been concerned for years about the fact that my First You Dream, Then You Die (or, as we call it around here, the doorstop) is the only full-length account of Cornell Woolrich. Now there’s a new book on the Hitchcock of the written word, and a good one.
Thomas C. Renzi’s Cornell Woolrich: From Pulp Noir to Film Noir (McFarland, 2006) deals with a number of Woolrich stories and novels that were adapted into movies – usually of the sort that we now call film noir – and with the similarities and differences between each film and its prose source.
Most of the movies he discusses are American but he rightly includes the major foreign films based on Woolrich, namely Truffaut’s THE BRIDE WORE BLACK and MISSISSIPPI MERMAID and Fassbinder’s MARTHA. TV movies based on Woolrich are also covered, although for some unaccountable reason Renzi omits YOU’LL NEVER SEE ME AGAIN (1974), which came from Woolrich’s 1939 novella of the same name, first collected in my own Nightwebs thirty-five years ago.
Renzi worked for five years on this book, and the more familiar you are with Woolrich, the more you understand that he’s done his homework meticulously. For another unaccountable reason he never thought about submitting the book to the MWA as a candidate for this year’s biographical-critical Edgar until I suggested it, but I believe it’s in the running now and will be amazed if it doesn’t pick up at least a nomination.
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