Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Next Big Thing

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

If writing a novel is like running a marathon, then writing a biography must be like a cross-country death race. I’ve just spent the last 4 years working on the biography of Erle Stanley Gardner, the very prolific author of the Perry Mason series. My trek has been even more daunting, given that Gardner could write an entire novel in 4 days. What would he think of me taking 4 years?

It did help that he was a man of perseverance. He wrote every day trying to meet a goal of 10,000 words a day. That’s about 40 pages to you and me. Before he learned to use a dictation machine, Gardner would type until his fingers bled. He took to wearing sticking plaster on the pads of his fingers to avoid getting blood on the keys. He wrote in the desert and in a hurricane while on a small boat. His dedication helped get me through 2 surgeries, thinking that if he could continue to write in those conditions, so could I.

The book is nearly complete. I’m working on the final edits for the book as we speak, and the entire thing should be bundled up to my agent by Christmas. 

What is your working title of your book (or story)? For the Defense

Where did the idea come from for the book? My Dad always used to bring home Perry Mason novels, and I always loved reading them. 

What genre does your book fall under?  Biography 

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? The definitive biography of Erle Stanley Gardner

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? Agency

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?  3 years!

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest? Gardner was married for over 30 years to a woman he didn't live with.

Other blogs: 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

God Save the Mark

Well, I'm embarrassed to say that I must have been hiding under a rock. I'm not always up with slang, but for some reason, I've always equated "God Save the Mark" as a reference to the German currency! So imagine my surprise when I opened this 1968 Edgar winner and found the "mark" to be none other than Fred Fitch, a  man completely gullible, someone who is a mark for every easy con in the book.

After getting over the shock of that, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Fred Fitch inherits $317,000 from an uncle he's never met before. At first he's concerned because he's the softest of soft touches and he knows that in no time, he'll be parted from his money.

But it soon becomes obvious that he has bigger problems when bullets fly past him and cars follow him. Someone else wants that money and is willing to kill for it.

I first discovered Donald Westlake when he wrote The Ax. I found it and read it while GE was in the midst of one of its never-ending layoffs. For a guy who likes his mysteries funny, I fell in love instantly. I've read 1/2 dozen more over the years and they never fail to satisfy my funny bone.

Even though God Save the Mark is nearly as old as me, I found the book to be surprisingly undated in terms of New York City and the environs.

I got this book for my Kindle on a free day and I'm definitely going back for more.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Cleverness is our national curse. (Part 2)

The ideal of the combined author character and critic in the field was not lost on two young cousins from New York City. Most critics indicate that Ellery Queen, character, owes much to Philo Vance. The mannerisms, the use of esoteric knowledge, and the superior knowledge all harken back to Van Dine’s detective.

Just as Van Dine had followed the The 6-letter word Murder Case titling, Queen as author did the same. All of the first xx books in the series follow a similar pattern, The Nationality Object Mystery, calling notice yet again to the similarities between the characters.

Queen was nearly as insufferable in terms of not telling what he knew when he knew it. However, at least his reluctance to expound on a solution was explained in The Greek Coffin Mystery, where the character proposed not one or two solutions, but four solutions before the correct answer was uncovered. Even so, the early books contain chapter quotes from famous criminologists and philosophers about the nature of crime and the chapter titles spell out the book title and author. 

Ellery’s knowledge of the esoteric is well-known. In The Siamese Twin Mystery, Queen goes to great lengths to discuss a playing card as a dying clue held in the murdered man’s hand. He analyzes the card as a playing card, message and goes as far as to translate the suits into other languages. Queen, the author, even toys with the idea of one twin being a murderer, and the subsequent lack of justice that would result from this situation. Would they release the killer so that the innocent twin could be free or would they jail the innocent twin to punish the killer?

Queen even goes as far as to create his own nursery rhyme murder mystery in There was an Old Woman. In that book, Queen does his level best to use parts of the Mother Goose rhyme about the old woman in the shoe as part of his case about the Potts family. Chapter titles use parts of the nursery rhyme and clues are left that fit into the rhyme as well.

Even though Queen had written Calamity Town about Wrightsville, which typically marks the third period of Queen’s work, There was an Old Woman seems to be more first period, albeit a slightly cock-eyed version of the first period. Queen’s involvement comes through his father, the solution depends on rather arcane cluing and the murders themselves are interesting problems of jurisprudence.

That’s not to say that there aren’t many aspects to the book that aren’t solely Queen’s. The use of another set of twins is definitely a Queenian touch. The characters come from a genetically tainted family, much like the one in The Tragedy of Y. Major Gotch is a throwback to the silent male companion in The Dragon’s Teeth.

Queen did not meet the same fate as Vance, in no small part because Queen the character did change over the course of the series. Vance was so set in stone as a dilettante that he could not change. Queen as a character slowly evolved from pedantic to more realistic. This change allowed the character to survive into the 1970s. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Something Borrowed, Something Brunette -- Erle Stanley Gardner's Birthday!

 The Case of the Borrowed Brunette borrows from Sherlock Holmes. The case begins with an advertisement for a brunette of a certain height, weight, age, and measurements to apply for a position. In using such a ploy, Gardner is recycling Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League,” which looked for a red-headed man to fill a position. While Gardner often claimed not to know much of the genre in which he wrote, works such as this, as well as comments made to editors and friends, reveal that he was well versed in mysteries both old and new. 
In this case, Helen Reedley is trying to deceive private investigators about her behavior. By hiring a woman who looks like her, Reedley is free to do as she pleases somewhere else. When the man who placed the ad for Reedley is murdered in Reedley’s apartment, the borrowed brunette and her chaperone are accused of murder. Mason agrees to represent them both, although he struggles more with the chaperone’s defense as the woman continues to change her story of what happened at the time of the murder. The book has an ending that is far more satisfying than other books of the period. The circumstantial evidence is read a different way by Mason, and the solution is fair to the reader.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Cleverness is our national curse.

Cleverness is our national curse. ~ Philo Vance, The Kennel Murder Case

One of the most dismissed forms of the twentieth century detective stories is the esthete or dandy. Starting in 1926, Willard Huntington Wright, writing as SS Van Dine, introduced Philo Vance. The character, who seemed to be an encyclopedia of art, culture and crime, appeared in 1926 in The Benson Murder Case. Vance was called “a man of unusual culture and brilliance.”

He was accompanied by SS Van Dine, the character, who also served as biographer to Vance. Much has been made of the relationship between Van Dine and Vance, with some suggesting that Vance actually wrote as Van Dine,  while others have suggested a more intimate relationship.[1]

Vance was a youngish man, who wore a monocle, and had a habit of dropping the ending g’s on words, and peppering his speech with “don’t y’ know”. Over the course of his appearances, Vance showed a predilection for horse racing, dog breeding, Egyptology, ancient Chinese ceramics, chess, Renaissance art, fencing, golf, poker, archery to name a few. This was Nietzsche’s superman come to solve the mystery.

In The Bishop Murder Case, Van Dine, the author, develops a framework of the puzzle mystery. Cock Robin, better known as Joseph Cochrane Robin, was found shot through the heart with an arrow at the home of a famous professor of Vance’s acquaintance. Vance is immediately concerned, feeling that this pattern is the work of an above-average, albeit off-kilter, mind. As two other crimes are committed using nursery rhymes, the body count stacks up and Vance must solve a rather heinous series of crimes.

While the puzzle itself was extremely well done, many critics and readers objected to the ending of the book, where Vance plays God by offing the murderer in a rather cold-blooded fashion. For someone who knows everything, should not the fate of a particular man be up to him as well? While Vance does not set the stage for the final crime, his discourse on another subject certainly helps put the events into motion.

The Kennel Murder Case, the fifth book in the series, proved more pedantic and yet better plotted. When the body of an art collector is found dead and locked in a room, Vance is called into the case. Vance quickly decides that the crime was murder and not suicide, and an examination of the body shows that the corpse was coshed, stabbed and shot.

The discovery of an injured Scottie downstairs provides Vance with the only clue to determining who had killed the collector. Vance, who breeds Scotties of course, includes a section where he tracks down the pedigree of the Scottie, including his own real-life breeding friends as characters. It is with the knowledge of the dog that Vance is able to solve the case.

Julian Symons and Barzun and Taylor were not kind to Van Dine or Vance. Symons felt that the later books in the series were sub-par to the first six novels. Of course, his assessment of The Gracie Allen Murder Case is correct, in that the book felt pandering to the masses for a boost in sales. However, one could not include a Vaudevillian couple into the rarified world of Vance and expect the results to be pleasant. Barzun and Taylor were less kind, only liking the first and last books in the series.

Despite the snobbery of Wright as Van Dine, Van Dine did offer literary criticism to the genre. He wrote a rather involved introduction to The World’s Great Detective Stories, and later offered 20 rules for writing a detective story for American Magazine. Of course, being Van Dine, he would feel no qualms about breaking those rules when it suited him.

[1] Since a piece on Vance wouldn’t be complete without footnotes, the first case has Markham ask Vance if he is wearing a green carnation, which was a pre-Stonewall signal of solidarity between gay men.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Dain Curse

The Dain Curse was the second novel from Dashiell Hammett and the second novel to feature the Continental Op, the original nameless detective. I had originally read this book back in the late 1970s, when I was still discovering mystery fiction and devouring everything that I could get my hands on for a quarter or less. I enjoyed the book thoroughly and at the time I ranked it third on my list of Hammett novels. Not long after my reading of the book, there was a 1978 CBS miniseries of the book, which I enjoyed as well. The miniseries won an Edgar and was nominated for 3 Emmys.

In re-reading it, I was surprised at how episodic the book felt. The book is divided into 3 parts, “The Dains”, “The Temple” and “Quesada.” Without giving away too much in terms of plot, each part pretty much stands alone. The characters with the exception of Gabriella and the Op are replaced in each section. The plot and crime in each section is different. There’s little to remind the reader of the previous sections of the book. There are some amusing touches, like the fact that Gabriella’s boyfriend’s last name is Collinson, which was Hammett’s penname at Black Mask during the early 1920s.

In part, this was because the book had been serialized. Yet, I’ve read other serialized novels, where cliffhangers appear every so often without such a disjointed feel to it. Black Mask serialized all of Hammett’s novels (except for The Thin Man) and yet his other works do not have this novel in 3 parts aspect to it.

Black Mask offered Hammett this deal to lure him back to the magazine. In 1926, Black Mask had not been willing to increase Hammett’s rates, and they’d lost the author. [Erle Stanley Gardner had actually offered to reduce his own rates to pay Hammett, but the editors rejected that suggestion out of hand. Gardner had felt that a lower rate for a publishing magazine was better than a higher rate for a defunct one.] In 1927, they came back to him and offered to let him serialize his novels as a way to lure him back into the fold. It was necessary; they’d lost thousands of readers along with Hammett in the past year.

It was not unusual to have this story structure. Erle Stanley Gardner’s agent actually suggested stringing three novellas together to make a novel. Gardner opted not to do that but to develop a new work that was expressly written at that length.

I’m going to pull out another Hammett novel and see if it has the same problems, but I do know that The Maltese Falcon, although serialized, did not suffer from this severe disjointedness. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Brat Farrar

I’m re-reading some of my all-time favorite books, and Brat Farrar was on that list. Though less well-known than Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, Brat Farrar is no less nuanced and enjoyable. The book tells the story of Brat Farrar, a foundling with no real place in the world, who is approached by an actor, Alec Loding. Loding momentarily mistook Brat for Simon Ashby, an old neighbor of Loding’s. Upon closer examination, it’s obvious to Loding that he was mistaken, but he develops a scheme. Simon Ashby is due to come into a fortune upon his 21st birthday in a few weeks. If Brat were to impersonate Simon’s older brother who went missing, he would inherit the estate and could easily share it with Loding.

While it seems that I have disclosed the entire plot of the book, in fact, all of this is given to the reader in the first few chapters of the book. Instead, the plot of the book deals with the tightrope Brat must walk in order to maintain his newfound place in a family. He grows to love the family members and their home, Latchetts, which is a working horse farm.

The mystery in this book is situational. Will Brat get away with the deception? If he is found out, when and how will he be found out? How can his exceptional resemblance to the family be explained away? As always, Tey makes us care about even the most minor characters in the book and richly draws each one.

Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be enough research material available for a biography of Tey who was actually Elizabeth Mackintosh and wrote plays under the name of Gordon Daviot.  One of her other works, A Shilling for Candles, was the genesis for Hitchcock's Young and Innocent, but even there little correspondence exists between author and filmmaker.  I do have a thin booklet printed which is called a “Celebration” of Tey, but she did not keep enough papers or letters to fully see the author.

A Masterpiece Mystery movie of this was shown on PBS in the 1980s. Sadly, unlike most every other movie shown there, this is not for sale on their website or any site for that matter. Only a poor quality bootleg copy is available. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012


The Glimpses of the Moon was the last novel by Edmund Crispin (Robert Bruce Montgomery). The author had worked fitfully on the book for 26 years, meaning that it would either be a work of art or a hodge-podge. In fact, it’s a bit of both. The final product seemed to appear at a loll in his alcoholism towards the end of his life. 

The book shares a title with a piece by Edith Wharton, but for the life of me, I'm not sure of the connection, having not picked up a Wharton is nearly 30 years.

For those expecting the odd little man of the earlier Crispin books, this story is very likely to disappoint. Fen has lost his quirkiness in this last novel, and become more of an everyman, a spectator to the truly bizarre happenings in the little village of Aller where he is house-sitting. When the local drunk, Gobbo, pronounces the man who has been arrested for murder could not be guilty as Gobbo was chatting with the drunk at the time, Fen becomes interested in the murder case, in which the decapitated head of the victim makes a number of untimely appearances.

When it soon proves that Gobbo is mistaken, the first of many blind alleys in the book, Fen is still intrigued by the case, which seems to have more to it than he first suspected. However, having set up a classic detection tale, Crispin seems to abandon it for a meandering tale where events seem to gobsmack the detective, who is exceedingly passive in the novel. When a second corpse turns up at the local church fete in the tent of a Botticelli painting, which is not truly a Botticelli, Fen decides to solve the case.

The book is a mish-mash of odd characters and farcical scenes. The pig farmer’s wife is an Amazon who takes on new lovers and moves them into her home with her long-suffering husband. For those who remember the earlier Fen books, the discussion of the character’s sex life, in detail, is so far removed from the earlier books that it is jarring.

That said, the plot seems to amble from farcical scene to farcical scene. The Rector dresses up a woman medium for the fete, and the resulting mischief ends with the discovery of the second corpse. Fen happens upon the protest of a fox hunt by a group of animal rights activists that quickly devolves into a chase with Fen’s friend, the Major, astride an unreliable horse.

While I can enjoy farce and adore the novels of Alice Tilton who did farce so well, this is not what I expected from this author. The language was still as eloquent as in earlier novels, but just as with the fete where the sign for the Botticelli hides a shoddy painting, the language cannot hide the lack of a developed plotline. I have to wonder if this novel was published by the estate or the literary executor to help pay expenses for the ailing Crispin. It’s not a good example of the author’s works to finish an oeuvre.  

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Burning Court (1937)

Though I thought I'd read most of the John Dickson Carr books in my college years, this one had escaped me somehow. I picked up a copy for my Kindle and read it a few weeks ago. Doug Greene, in his seminal work on Carr, indicates that Carr wrote the book to show that the witchcraft and supernatural stories could be written about the US.

Overall, I enjoyed it very much. The story is atypical for Carr in that it does not have one of his series characters in it. The hero, if you wish to use the term, is an editor who lives in Pennsylvania. The man is reading a manuscript of true crime stories by Gaudan Cross and comes across the story of a woman poisoner who greatly resembles his own wife, who comes from rather mysterious circumstances. When it's discovered that a local man was poisoned, of course suspicions fall upon the wife.

Carr offered two impossible crimes for us in this book, which I enjoyed very much. First, who was that lady (sorry I couldn't help myself) who was seen in the victim's room on his last night, who turned and apparently walked through the wall? Then, what happened to the body of the victim?

As I've found with most JDC books, I am just merely along for the ride, because I can't possibly keep up with his mind and imagination. In this case, there is a double reveal. The crimes are all explained logically and then a final twist is thrown in, one that would have Father Knox rolling in his grave.

I would still give this book a hearty recommendation, and it made me want to search out the few remaining Carrs I haven't read.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Parker Pyne

I just finished re-reading Parker Pyne Investigates (or Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective in the US.) I’d read this book many years ago, and enjoyed it. Coming back to the book older (and hopefully wiser), I noticed some flaws with the book. The first and foremost is that it doesn’t live up to its promise. The advertisement for Pyne reads "Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne."

The first few stories of the collection are more tales of manipulation. How can the main character be moved into a situation where they are happy or more content with their lot in life? We are shown cases of bored pukah sahibs, unhappy rich widows and such. Pyne, who says that there are only 5 types of unhappiness (though sadly we’re never told what they are), goes to his files and finds the proper scenario to make them happy. My favorite by far is The Case of the Rich Woman, which shows that money cannot buy happiness.
He is ably assisted by Ariadne Oliver, who appears in two stories in this collection, well before her more formal introduction in Cards on the Table. Not much is different about her from story to novel, which isn’t particularly a surprise, since she was loosely based on Christie herself.

After the first burst of stories though, the tales become more familiar. Jewels are stolen, children are kidnapped, people are murdered. It was almost as if Christie had run out of fresh idea for the character before she ran out of required words for the collection. John Curran has little to say about the collection, other than it came during a remarkably productive period in her life.

My 1st edition of this book
So we’re left with almost two collections, the first light-hearted and adventurous and the second more traditional class mystery tales. That’s not to say that any of the stories are weak, but they are not her best either.

She does seem to have cannibalized a great deal of this collection for her later works. As mentioned earlier, Christie reuses Ariadne Oliver in Cards on the Table. A particular plot twist from the “House at Shiraz” is reused later in a later book.  Another of the stories is entitled “Death on the Nile” which appeared later that same decade as a novel. The two share little else in common than the title. In the short version, an older woman wants to hire Parker Pyne to learn if her husband is poisoning her. In one of the best lines of the book, Pyne asks her if she is hoping that he is not poisoning her or if she is hoping that he is poisoning her. A very interesting look at the psyche of an unhappy woman. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

New Blog

I've decided to start my own blog, after the sad demise of The Little Blog of Murder. I worked with that blog for nearly a decade, before we all decided to call it quits.

This blog derives its name from The Corpse Steps Out by Craig Rice, the subject of my first biography (and my favorite of her books.)

This blog is going to be a bit more focused on Golden Age Detective Fiction. Some of it will be excerpts of what I'm writing; others will be reviews of books that I've read lately.