Saturday, October 1, 2016

COVERING THEIR TRACKS: "Nancy Drew" - Relient K

I got this thing for Nancy Drew
Her hair is blond, her eyes are blue

Time to rejoin the 21st century. I love when someone takes a modern pop tune and juxtaposes it with good old-fashioned movies in glorious black and white. What better choice to illustrate this guitar infused anthem to the queen of girl sleuths than a series of clips from the Bonita Granville movies? And don't forget Frankie Thomas as Ted (not Ned) Nickerson. (Guess the screenwriters didn't like that alliteration.)

One time these criminals with their guns
They thought it would be fun
To try to kill my
Nancy Drew
I jumped out and saved her life
Then asked her to be my wife
She said, "No, I'll never marry you!"

Written by Brian Lee Pittman, Matthew Arnold Thiessen, Matthew Ryan Hoopes, Stephen Cushman
© Universal Music Publishing Group, Capitol Christian Music Group

Friday, September 30, 2016

FFB: Four & Twenty Bloodhounds - MWA Anthology, Anthony Boucher (ed.)

For years the Mystery Writers of America have been putting out an annual anthology usually with a theme of some sort. I'm not sure if this tradition is still being continued, but it certainly was a regular practice for the first ten or fifteen years of their existence. Four & Twenty Bloodhounds (1950) is one of the earliest collections, the third to be precise. From the clever title you might be able to figure out the theme. The book contains twenty-four stories each spotlighting a different series detective. They range from the very familiar (Ellery Queen, Gideon Fell, Hildegarde Withers) to those known only to diehard fans (Johnny Liddell, Merlini, Scott Jordan, Lt. Timothy Trant) to the utterly obscure (Nick Noble, Shadrack Arnold, Mortimer Death). Each story is preceded by some background history on the writer, the detective or both, sometimes some intriguing publication history as well all provided by the genre's first real fan boy, Anthony Boucher who oversaw the collection as editor and mystery maven.

This is one of the most varied and exciting mystery story anthologies I've ever come across. There are traditional detective stories, hardboiled pulp style thrillers, some suspense tales, and even two solve-it-yourself puzzles penned by Clayton Rawson and featuring the Great Merlini. The bulk of the stories were originally published in magazines between 1942-1947 with a few stories taken from short story collections like the Solar Pons tale which was first published in book format. Some date back to the late 1930s and were pulled from pulp magazines like Lawrence Blochman's story, "The Zarapore Beat" about a NYC patrolman assigned as a bodyguard to a visiting Maharajah, pulled from a 1936 issue of Argosy. Only three pieces appear to be originally written for this volume: "Three Strips of Flesh", the only Mary Finney short story, actually just a rewrite of the novel Devil in the Bush (1945); "Girl Overboard" by Q. Patrick is the first appearance of a story that was rewritten to take place in a hotel rather than a ocean liner because (Boucher tells us in his intro) it apparently resembled a true crime case that was fresh in the headlines when Wheeler and Webb sent it off to a magazine publisher, here we get the original shipboard mystery; and "Michael Shayne as I Know Him", the only non-fiction piece in the book, by Brett Halliday who gives us the inside dope on how Shayne came into being.

That last piece by Halliday is merely an elaboration on something that each author was asked to provide for the book. Following each story is a biographical sketch modeled after that registry of the elite, Who's Who. Each author was asked to provide their charcter's biographical details from birthplace to schooling, professional life to hobbies. Boucher then took that data and wrote up listings as they would appear in a mythical book called The Detective Who's Who. I took a photo of Hildegarde Withers' entry as an illustration (see below) because it's one of the more amusing ones. Look under her hobbies. Dianetics! Who knew the old schoolmarm was a follower of L. Ron Hubbard's cult?

I'm still reading this 400+ page anthology, one or two stories per day, so I can't really give you an overview of the best of the 24 stories. I liked the Solve-It-Yourself puzzles neither of which I figured out. Way too subtle for me, I guess. Four & Twenty Bloodhounds includes several other first appearances, too. Of those I'll highlight the only short story appearance in book format of Rachel Murdock whose debut was in the novel The Cat Saw Murder and the only appearance in a short story of a The Mysterious Traveller ("The Big Money" by Robert A. Arthur) who was created for a radio series. Lots of detectives who I had never heard of turn up in these pages: Ken Crossen's Mortimer Death, aptly enough a mortician turned amateur sleuth; Shadrock Arnold, created by pulp fiction writer Verne Chute, one of the three correspondence school detectives in the genre and probably the least known of that trio; and a rare short story --a prizewinner no in EQMM no less-- featuring Jeff and Haila Troy ("Two over Par" by Kelley Roos, set at a golf country club), one of the married couple sleuthing teams whose adventures are worth reading.

EASY TO FIND? I was surprised to discover that this book was reprinted back in the 1980s by Carroll & Graf bringing the total to at least three editions out there to find. Online booksellers offer multiple copies of all three: US & UK hardcover, and the C&G paperback reprint. It's a book that diehard fans of detective fiction definitely ought to read if not own. The breadth of the stories, the unusual characters and the rarity of some of the lesser known detectives in short story appearances make this anthology a must have for real devotees of the genre.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

COVERING THEIR TRACKS: "Undercover" - Joey Deluxe

Infiltrate, investigate, interrogate until you get a clue
Ingratiate, inebriate, infatuate your next ingénue

How about a spy tune, gang! Or...uh...well...a spy tune with a mess of detectives in the lyrics.

Joey Deluxe is the pseudonymous alter ego for sound and music editor Joey Merholz when he's donning his composer hat. He's only written two original tunes for movie soundtracks which he also performed. "Undercover" appeared for the first time in --of all things-- the otherwise forgettable 1998 remake of Godzilla. Joey's really working his Lou Reed/Leonard Cohen baritone in this pastiche of a 1960s spy theme.

I'll forgive him for not knowing the difference between spies and detectives. And for adding a private eye writer's name in the lyrics just for the hell of it. I just like the overall spy vibe and the jazzy melody with that blaring horn section and that mean Hammond organ heard faintly in the musical break. It's probably all digital music made with a Mac and software. But who cares? Sounds like a jazz combo in some dive lounge off the old Vegas strip. I love it!

I found a video using this tune and made by someone who seems to be madly in love with Ilya Kuryakin from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. So enjoy these bits from that old TV show featuring David McCallum, several shapely spy gals, some villainous baddies, and -- every now and then -- Robert Vaughn. All in 1960s living color!

Sam Spade, James Bond, Philip Marlowe, secret agent lover
Now, you're Mickey Spillane and you're goin' undercover
It's a covert operation, in and out, and get yourself out of there
You can get bugged, tapped, wired, and end up caught in her snare
Few are those who can resist the lure of wealth and sex
So wrap it up in your trench coat, baby, and pray it protects

©1998, Joey Deluxe, Sony/Tri-Star Music

Friday, September 23, 2016

FFB: Wild Justice - George A Birmingham

THE STORY: The apparent suicide of an Irishman with ties to the IRA is investigated by Chief Constable Devenish, Lord Benton, and a country parson. The detective novel plot is used to explore ongoing conflict between Irish loyalists living in England and the hatred they endure from British citizens.

THE CHARACTERS: Wild Justice (1930) is narrated by an Anglican minister who is given no name throughout the course of the book. Early on in the book he says "I am no lover of the Irish, who have always struck me as a troublesome race, but I like to be just to them." This is the overarching tenor of the book. The author, an Irishman himself, starts by poking fun at the anti-Irish sentiment that was prevalent in England at the time. The humor is mildly satiric in pointing out the narrow-minded prejudices of the narrator and others, but by the end of the book the author is clearly espousing his critical opinion of the radical Irish, the revolutionaries and terrorists who have sullied the reputation and history of the homeland he is proud of.

Chief Constable Devenish, a retired army colonel and the primary detective of the piece, is the embodiment of all that is good about Ireland. He's a war hero, affable, fair-minded, and has an admirable skill in making people feel at ease the moment he meets them. The victim and the man put on trial for murder, who happened to be the victim's dearest friend as well as an IRA member, are depicted as everything that is wrong with the country. In fact, the KC prosecuting the case uses the courtroom as his chance to malign all of Ireland as a land of rebels that celebrates "secret societies" and the men who run them. Despite what may seem to be slathering on condemnation for Ireland and its people, Birmingham does not really resort to simplistic black and white portraits of good and evil. Rather he shows the fraternal love Irishmen have for one another and presents legitimate reasons for understanding why the radical factions have such deep-seated antipathy for English law and English culture. The reader understands the Irish mindset, the stubborn beliefs they cling to, their innate sense of humor that helps them cope with trauma and hardship. And you see bigotry uncovered for what it really is.

Servant characters usually allocated to minor supporting roles figure prominently in the first half of the story, especially Bastable the bigoted butler on the Benton estate and George, the beleaguered footman. "Murder or no murder," comes Bastable's reprimand to George, "the rector and Colonel Devenish will be wanting their boots and they're to be cleaned properly before they're brought up." The business of what happened to boots overnight may seem like a minor incident to every other character in the book except George who insists that one pair was not with the rest. He eventually loses his job over the boot incident since no one will believe his story. Knowing how missing boots and the cleaning of them pop up as clues in classic mystery fiction (The Hound of the Baskervilles and Trent's Last Case come to mind) I knew these scenes were not meant to be trivial at all. True enough the boot incident will have repercussions by the end of the novel.

INNOVATIONS: There may be an entire subgenre of mainstream novels about the Irish/English conflict. I can think of The Informer by Liam O'Flaherty and Odd Man Out by F.L. Green as two excellent examples. Wild Justice is the only Golden Age detective novel I have encountered where anti-Irish sentiment and the effect of Irish terrorism on innocent citizens plays such a major part in the story. In fact these themes serve as the underlying motive for the crimes revealed in the most unexpected manner in the powerful finale.

As far as ingenious use of clues there is a section in which a typewriter with a German keyboard turns up twice and the accidental use of umlauts (ä, ö, ü) is a telltale clue in a letter sent to the accused. Our parson narrator, who has been wrokign on a monograph on medieval Irish monastaries, is called upon to use his knowledge of "old Irish" to authenticate the letter which employs several phrases in Gaelic, or Erse as the British characters call it. The linguistic bits though not entirely fair play clues are fascinating. But the typewriter clue is perhaps the most damning piece of evidence. The discussion of the German typewriter keyboard comes up three times in the novel and astute readers will be able to use those scenes to unmask the killer long before the rest of the characters figure it out.

The closing argument of the defense attorney in the climactic murder trial is a brilliant example of legal rhetoric. He manages to do some clever reasoning and does his best to sway the jury to a verdict of not guilty by playing up reasonable doubt, the crucial phrase that can acquit a man of a crime.

QUOTES: On the narrator's inexpert participation at a hunting party: "I missed rather more than usual, and I always miss more than I hit. This does not trouble me, for I have a feeling that a parson ought not to be an expert at killing things, except, of course, fish."

"I am not an expert in Irish affairs but I hold strongly that it is a mistake to assume that anything that happens or ever has happened there is reasonable."

"I wondered at and greatly admired the way [Devenish] dealt with a fanatic like O'Callaghan. I should just as soon have tried to make a joke to an American Methodist Minister about Prohibition."

"He had been foolish enough to slay his man in England, a country in which the old-fashioned prejudice against unauthorized killing still survives."

Bastable's bigotry: "...there wasn't much blood, sir. So Mrs. Mudge informed me. Not so much as might be anticipated, considering that the parties concerned were both Irish."

Bastable again: "Now, I'm Church, sir, and I've always voted Conservative. But what I say is, that if a man would rather be Chapel [Roman Catholic] and vote Liberal that's his business and no affair of mine. But the Irish is different from us, sir."

James Owen Hannay , circa 1930s
photo ©Pirie MacDonald,
courtesy National Portrait Gallery
THE AUTHOR: "George A. Birmingham" is the chosen pen name of James Owen Hannay (1865-1950). Hannay was born in Belfast, educated in Ireland and was ordained a Church of Ireland clergyman in 1889. He served at various churches throughout Ireland and was an army chaplain during WW1. In 1922 he joined an ambassadorship to Budapest. After his time in Hungary he settled in England and remained there for the rest of his life. He began writing novels in 1905 focusing on his critical view of Irish politics in his first novel The Seething Pot. Then he turned to comic novels for which he is best known continuing his critical viewpoint in a gentle satirical vein. Late in his writing career he wrote a handful of detective and crime novels the most noteworthy being The Hymn Tune Mystery (1930), also with a clergyman narrator, that deals with the murder of an organ player and a clever cryptogram that can only be solved with a knowledge of reading music.

THINGS I LEARNED: Stumbled across a very unusual word: peccant - guilty of committing sin. The sentence where this is used: "It was horrible to feel that a fellow human being, however guilty he might be, was being walled in, as they say peccant nuns sometimes were in the dark ages." That's some metaphor!

I was caught up in the section on Gaelic grammar and vocabulary. It went on for about ten pages but I never found it boring. Learned all about the placement of vowels, subtleties in Irish grammar that affect connotation and meaning, and that A chara dhilis is the way to write "My dear friend" in a Irish letter salutation. Also that the Gaelic name Diarmuid is pronounced something close to "Jeermood" in English.

EASY TO FIND? I found this book through serendipitous browsing at BookMan BookWoman, a used bookstore in Nashville, during a weekend getaway earlier this month. The store was having a sale -- $9.95 for every hardcover mystery book no matter what the price marked inside. How fortuitous! (as some Victorian character might exclaim.) I took every vintage mystery I could find that I didn't already own. Wild Justice was the most unusual and the oldest in the small pile of books I purchased. I already knew of Birmingham from my reading The Hymn Tune Mystery several years ago. To my surprise an internet search turned up 14 more copies of Wild Justice mostly of the various Methuen editions, but none with a complete DJ like mine. My copy is a 1935 reprint. It apparently was selling well -- the 1935 edition is the fifth printing since it's original publication in 1930. There are also US reprints from Jacobsen out there to buy. All but one are reasonably priced ranging from $5 to $15. Such deals for a rather excellent yet utterly forgotten detective novel by an undeservedly forgotten writer. I doubt there are any digital copies, but I didn't bother to look for them.