Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Little Mischief

This week I'm looking at Mischief, which will appear in the Library of America's new volumes of American Women Authors of the 1940s and 1950s.

Armstrong’s  bestseller Mischief became the basis for the movie Don't Bother to Knock, which starred a young Marilyn Monroe as a mentally unbalanced baby-sitter. As in Bus Stop, Monroe gives some of her best work, proof that she was more than just a dumb blonde. Mischief would do for babysitters what Psycho would later do for showers. Armstrong’s book started out as a play entitled Little Nell, a wry twist on the idea of the poor young Dickensian heroine. She later changed the story to the now familiar plot of the babysitter who seems reliable, but quickly displays her disturbed nature. The elevator man’s niece is a last minute replacement for the husband’s sister who had a previous engagement. Nell, the babysitter, seems almost mentally challenged at first, but her total lack of morals and concern for the future are slowly revealed to the reader. The book is tightly and expertly written and touches upon the fears of every parent.
Two themes begin to resonate through the works of Armstrong at this point. The first is the idea of the strong woman. Women who might appear slight in appearance, but are made of steel inside have replaced the dependent girls of her first few efforts. In Mischief, Ruth Jones, the child’s mother, is one such heroine. For three quarters of the book, she is merely the companion to her husband who has just wowed an audience with his speech. She is only given a few polite words to murmur in appreciation of her spouse. However, when she feels concern about her daughter being in danger, she immediately rushes to action. She travels through New York City alone and confronts Nell without thought to her own safety. 

These women are typically married, happy, and most strong in defending a family member.

The other idea that starts to come through in her work is the idea of a collective unconscious. Armstrong would use the notion in many of her later novels. The subtle idea that a number of characters could share an emotion without discussing it appears in a number of her works. In Mischief, she manages to imbue several of her characters with the realization that they share the guilt for this situation. The child’s brush with danger from the deranged babysitter could have been prevented with intervention from any number of people. All the characters “could” have done something to stop the crescendo of fear and abuse. While none of the characters express this concern verbally, it passes through the thoughts of several of the major characters. The couple staying downstairs might have investigated the crying earlier or the elevator operator might have suggested another babysitter. Thematically tied to the idea of helping each other, Jed, Nell’s date for the evening, even recalls a fight he had with another woman about her desire to give money to the bums on the streets. The notion of contributing to help others runs deep in the novel. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Some Domestic Suspense for you

To celebrate the Library of America's decision to publish several of the American women mystery authors who were profiled in Atomic Renaissance, I thought I'd give you my thoughts on some of the books in the collections. All of these books are fascinating and everyone should be running to get a copy of them!

After Highsmith's The Price of Salt, The Blunderer, was again in the suspense field and published under her own name. In The Blunderer, she twists the formula she used so well in Strangers on a Train.
“[T]he germinal idea of another book, The Blunderer, was not so promising, was more stubborn about developing, but showed a hardihood by sticking in my head for more than a year, and nagging at me until I found a way to write it. This was: ‘Two crimes are strikingly similar, though the people who commit them do not know each other.’”1

As with Strangers on a Train, the two main characters are men, bound together by murder. In this case, one man has intentionally killed his wife, the other merely fantasized about it before his wife commits suicide. While Walter Stackhouse has not committed a crime, he has daydreamed about his wife’s murder. Society punishes him for that crime by making him the outcast that his wife wanted him to be. Stackhouse is trapped in an existential nightmare, one where he is punished for the wickedness of his thoughts rather than for any deed he committed. The situation is evocative of Kafka, where no one can halt events once they have begun. The logical end is like a brick wall looming ahead. The policeman, Corby, plays the two men off each other until the situation explodes into further violence.
Again the women in the novel are not sympathetic. Clara Stackhouse, a successful businesswoman, clings to her husband with threats of suicide and promises that she will change. She is petty and neurotic, accusing her husband of starting an affair with an acquaintance before he even notices the young woman in question.

In nearly all of Highsmith’s works, the plot has a point of no-return where the character could choose another direction. Once that choice is made, the inevitable path of self-destruction begins. Some critics have decried her works, saying that the suspension of disbelief is stretched too far by the extreme reactions of the characters. To Highsmith’s credit, she makes the situation so plausible and real that the reader forgets that the protagonist might have avoided the entire situation. In Strangers on a Train, Guy could have easily not played along with Bruno’s conversation. He could have moved or read a book. In The Blunderer, Walter follows the bus carrying his wife to the first rest stop. His reasoning for his actions is thin, but Highsmith has so masterfully drawn the characters and situation that the reader understands the actions, even if the decisions are not what the reader would do.
(1.Patricia Highsmith. Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, page 4.)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

William Desmond Taylor – then and now

Back in the 1940s, Marie Rodell was the editor of the Regional Murder series, a number of books containing essays regarding true crime cases. I was introduced to The LA Murders and The Chicago Murders through my biography of Craig Rice. Rice had contributed to the Chicago edition with an essay and helped to edit LA.

In The LA Murders, I found an essay by Erle Stanley Gardner, the author of the Perry Mason series, on William Desmond Taylor, a fascinating unsolved murder case. Taylor was a famous actor and director who was fatally shot one night at his home in LA. It was obvious from early on that many people did not want the crime solved and did their best to obstruct the investigation. The piece, "The Case of the Movie Murder", was a recount of the story developed mainly from newspaper accounts of what had happened. 
Of course, being Rice, she wanted a more sensationalistic approach to the topic and wanted Gardner to name the killer, similar to how Perry Mason solves the crime in the last pages of the book. Gardner, ever the lawyer, refused. Many of the primary suspects were still alive in 1946, and Gardner was worried about a libel suit from one person in particular (Mrs. Shelby.) His work was cautious, but the astute reader could see that Mrs. Shelby was the person Gardner suspected most of the crimes. 
Flash forward 70 years, and William Mann has written Tinseltown, a book regarding the same case. The first thing I noticed as I read this fascinating book was that Mann had added valuable context to the case. No longer does the reader have to wonder why people wanted to shut down the investigation. He discusses the overdoses of several celebrities and the Fatty Arbuckle case all of which tainted the Hollywood brand in the first decades of the new century. 

Each of the many suspects is discussed at length in chapters that alternate. Mann paints such a vivid image of each of the actresses and studio heads that there is never any confusion about the wide variety of people that Taylor knew. 
With the passage of over 90 years now, Mann does have a distinct advantage over Gardner. He is able to speculate on the case as all of the primary suspects have now passed away. This makes for a better book in that Mann does draw some distinct conclusions about the murderer and the solution. I won’t share these – I don’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of reading this book. 
I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who likes mysteries, true crime or Hollywood. The William Desmond Taylor case offers all three of these and Mann has used all three deftly. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Puzzle for Wantons

In my last blog post, I mentioned my favorite Quentin, A Puzzle for Wantons, and I thought today I’d discuss my reasons for that. First, the book is the fourth in the Puzzle series that features Iris and Peter Duluth.

The couple met in A Puzzle for Fools, then married in A Puzzle for Players and reunited when Peter returned home from the war in A Puzzle for Puppets. The first three books are thoroughly enjoyable, but as detective stories they fall short of what I hope for. Fool and Players uses a third party (Dr. Lenz, the psychiatrist) to solve the crimes at the last minute, which reduces the part of the main characters from sleuths to merely pawns. Puppets has a wonderful first half where the Duluths are trying to solve a series of crimes, but then takes the entire second half of the book to explain the solution.

Which brings the reader to Wantons. Iris, who is now a nationally known actress and her husband visit Reno as the guests of Lorraine Pleygel, an insanely wealthy woman who has invited a number of couples to her mansion. With the exception of the Duluths and Pleygel (who has recently fallen for a man) and the unaptly named “Lover and Mimi, all the other couples are in the throes of divorce.
One by one, the women in these failed relationships begin to die. Dorothy, who ran through her husband’s money while he was off at war, is the first to go by way of a poisoned gambling chip. Then Janet is killed as well.

This is the only book in the series that the Duluths are not presented with the solution. Both together and separately they hunt for the clues that will lead them to the answer to a particularly twisted ending. I can’t talk about the ending without spoilers, but it’s as delicious as the rest of the book.
There would be four more books in the series, two more Puzzle books and two books where Lt. Trant begins to become the lead character for the series. The remaining Puzzle books were Fiend, which was more thriller than detective novel, and Pilgrim, which was just frankly depressing.

There were paperback reprints of these novels in the 1980s, but nothing since then. Since they were the joint collaboration of Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, I have no idea what the estate would look like for getting these books digitally published. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Four authors, three pen names and a great book

I just finished reading Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas G. Greene. This was a project organized by Curt Evans in honor of Doug’s 70th birthday. While not technically a history of the genre, it might as well be. The essays stretch from JS Fletcher (when I was younger, I did believe that the J was for “Jessica” as in Murder She Wrote) to PD James. While so many of the books I read travel a well-known path of authors and their works, I was very pleased by the amount of original research done for this book. There were essays on Carolyn Wells, the aforementioned Mr. Fletcher, and Patrick Quentin.


The Quentin essay was one of my favorites in the book. Quentin has long been a favorite author, but the exact provenance of each book was somewhat in question. Four authors wrote as Patrick Quentin/Q Patrick/Jonathan Stagge. Richard Webb collaborated with all three of the other authors, making him the sole common factor in their creation. None of the others working in collaboration with each other.


Each of the pen names has wonderful books. Q Patrick released The Grindle Nightmare, which is roundly praised. (For my xxth birthday, I received a signed first of this book, so I’ll be blogging on it soon.)


As Patrick Quentin, Webb and Hugh Wheeler wrote the Peter Duluth series of mysteries. The series later would swap detectives for Lt. Timothy Trant, but the first few books in the series are a delight. In A Puzzle for Fools, the first in the series, Peter meets Iris while they are both in a mental institution.

My favorite in the series is A Puzzle for Wantons, with a wonderful puzzle and a wicked solution. I’ll be posting another blog entry on that book alone soon.

*** Note: in the spirit of self-disclosure, I do have an essay in Mysteries Unlocked, but I do not receive any remuneration from it. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Writing like it's 2014

Dear Author:

The year is 2014. LGBT characters are routinely shown on TV, and 35-ish states (plus DC) will allow marriage between spouses of the same gender in the next few weeks. So why am I continuing to see the same tired old tropes in fiction? I just stopped reading a recent best seller for exactly these reasons.

I’m listing a few “rules” for writing LGBT characters that should be heeded.

1)      Never refer to a character as a “homosexual” and especially do not have a character self-identify in that way. Unless the character performs research in the social sciences, this will never happen. The same applies to “preference;” the only person who would use that word is a hater.
2)      Use stereotypes with care. While stereotypes typically have a grain of truth in them, the fact is that for every gay man who doesn’t know sports, there’s a Michael Sam. There is no one size fits all character that can be used. Make your LGBT character as well developed as any other character in the book.
3)      Lesbian characters are not a straight man’s fantasy. If they don’t have a legitimate purpose beyond titillation, make them straight women.  
4)      Introduce transgender characters with dignity. Learn the differences between cross-dressers, drag king/queen, and transgender, and don’t mix characteristics of each into a single character. Use the pronouns that your characters would want used about them. If you can’t determine those pronouns, then you’re not ready to include this character yet.

5)      If your character is in a relationship, know the status. Does that state have marriage equality or civil unions or nothing? What does that cover? What does that not cover? I know when I read about a same sex spouse receiving survivor benefits from Social Security that the author has made assumptions. It’s not all equal. Granted, things are changing quickly, but for readers today we will know the difference.
6)      Don’t use a stereotype as a clue to the solution of the mystery. The hero should never say, “Only a man who knew the words to Funny Girl could have killed Mr. X, which means that our gay character is the killer.” Don’t give us a list of over-the-top clues to the orientation of a character to allow us to “solve” the mystery of the character’s orientation. “Jack is so tidy that he must be gay!” It was outdated in 1970. It’s ridiculous today.
7)      Gay does not equal weak. I have a black belt in tae kwon do. So save the tears for someone else. The old gay as victim has been done to death. It goes back at least 90 years, which means there’s nothing new you can do with that scenario.
8)      You don’t get to use the word f*****. Ever. If you have a homophobic character, show us that he or she is homophobic. Don’t have him/her call another character f***** as your shorthand for homophobic. When writing, replace it with the n-word and see how great it sounds.
9) 9     And since we’re doing away with the gay as victim, let’s get rid of the gay as villain role too. No gay person has ever murdered people to stay in the closet. Trust me, I’ve done research. So this motive is not realistic. Chad Allen and NPH were forced out of the closet. Larry Craig, despite being outed, continues to deny it. None of them have ever killed to keep a secret.

10)      If you don’t know, use Google. Don’t assume that you know the LGBT experience because you watched Dynasty in the 1980s. Things have changed. Better yet. Ask someone who is LGBT. Even if you don’t think you do, you know more than one LGBT person. Chances are they’ll be happy to answer your questions. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Another Series Continuation...

Thomas Chastain agreed to continue the Perry Mason series with books written by him and approved by the estate. Chastain had been a newspaper reporter who was best known for Who Killed The Robins Family?, a mystery novel that doubled as a contest to name the killer and win a prize. Following the second book featuring Perry Mason, and the series ended for a second and final time. Chastain passed away four years later. 

The first book was something of an anomaly and stood out immediately from the rest of the series. The title of the book was The Case of Too Many Murders, which deviated from the pattern by removing “the” and replacing it with “too.” Unlike the majority of the Perry Mason cases, the story does not open with a scene in Mason’s office, and the novel has the feel of Gardner’s early harder boiled mysteries. Unlike the original books, Chastain uses interior monologues for the characters, which was not something that Gardner had ever done. Characters were portrayed by their actions, not their thoughts, and at no time was the reader allowed into Perry Mason's head. Such a technique would have ruined the surprises that lay in store for the reader in the last chapter of the book. Ignoring that rule, Chastain radically altered the feel for the books. Readers were suddenly presented with a Perry Mason who had his own thoughts -- rather than a Perry whose thoughts were inferred by the reader. 

Chastain used some of the made-for-television movie enhancements in his book, such as the use of the Paul Drake Jr character. The second book in the series was The Case of the Burning Bequest. The books were pedestrian mysteries without much in the way of Gardner’s own unique knowledge of the law.