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. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Top 10 Books

There's a new meme on Facebook where you're asked to name 10 books that influenced you. I posted a short list of books on Facebook, but I thought I'd elaborate on each title on my blog. While it may 
seem amazingly eclectic, explanations might make more sense of it. Each has had an impact on me personally and professionally. 

Here they are in their glory:

1) East of Eden by John Steinbeck - A great re-imagining of the story of Cain and Abel, this story's theme always reminds me that free will and choices make up so much of who we are. Sometimes I need to be reminded of that. 

2) Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger - Is there a teenage boy who doesn't like this and read it? 

3) Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers - One of my all time favorite mysteries, which combined a non-murder plot, a romance, and a thematic question on women and education. A fascinating blend, and a book I re-read almost yearly. 

4) Emma by Jane Austen - Jane Austen has a way with characters and social mores. Emma is perhaps my favorite character. Her twisted path to find Mr. Knightly reminds me of someone else I know <g>. 

5) A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie - In its own way, a novel of post WWII England as much as a mystery. Christie looks at the way her country has changed for better and for worse. The book includes her first lesbian couple and an aftermath of murder that is as raw and gut-wrenching as anything I've seen by any mystery author. 

6) In Cold Blood by Truman Capote - True crime meets one of the century's bon vivants. 

7) The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen - Not one, but four brilliant solutions in one book. By far one of the best and most convoluted mysteries ever written. 

8) Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett - Read to me by my 4th grade teacher Mrs. Murply. We didn't finish before the end of the school year. The story so fascinated me that I had to pick up a copy at the library and finish it. I was amazed to think that a book could so have an impact on a person. 

9) My Kingdom for a Hearse by Craig Rice  - One of the most grotesque and funny mysteries ever, I never realized that mysteries could be just downright fun. 

10) Women in Love by DH Lawrence  - We read this in high school and twice since. It gets better as I age. 

And remember that I judge people by the books on their shelves,

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Whiffs of Dover

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I love a comedic mystery. I’ve written extensively about Craig Rice and Phoebe Atwood Taylor, but this week I’m going across the pond to England in the 1960s for a dose of Dover. 

Detective Chief Inspector Wilfred Dover was the character created by Joyce Porter for a series of mysteries. Dover is unlike any DCI you’ll ever read about. He’s surly, mean, obese, attention-seeking, fame-grabbing, hard drinking, lazy, and borderline corrupt, and yet he’s one of the funniest detectives around. I recently found two of this series at Grave Matters and I bought them up in a hurry.

In Dover Two, which some critics call the best of the series, he’s sent to the scene of an attempted murder. Dover’s actually glad to be there since he’s tired of hearing about Bigamous Bertie and Superintendent Roderick. A young woman, who is both unattractive and insistent for a suitor, has been pestering the men of Curdley. She was shot several months prior to Dover’s arrival. The woman had been in a coma since the attempted homicide; however, her death makes it a homicide and Dover, along with Sergeant MacGregor, go to Curdley.

They find the town to be in a long-standing feud between the CoE townsfolk and the Catholic residents. Dover is a Methodist, which makes him somewhat immune to the battle. He and MacGregor follow a wide range of clues from pillowcases to the infamous Bigamous Bertie himself. MacGregor, who is a paragon of virtue, is outdone by Dover at nearly every turn in this case.

Focusing on the original crime, Dover finds a somewhat impossible crime situation for which he has a few choice words. The only people in the vicinity of the shooting have eyewitnesses to their locations. Since the walls along the road where she was shot were high and gated, it appears that no one could have shot poor Isobel.

Under the layers of laughter is a taut mystery that is little appreciated. I wish that the Dover books would be reprinted. There are Foul Play Press editions from some years ago, but I’ve heard nothing about other reprints or eBooks of these classics.