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Oct 25 2014 11:00am

Fatal Footlights: The Theater Mystery

The theater world has long been a prime setting for mystery and mayhem. Shakespeare, that homicidal scribe, virtually carpeted the stage with slain corpses. The murderers he created are numerous: Richard III, Othello, Titus Andronicus, Lear’s daughter Goneril, Macbeth (both He and She) and a whole squad of Caesar-skewering assassins—whose best-known member, Brutus, made this bloody recommendation:

Let's kill him boldly, but not wrathfully;

Let's carve him as a dish fit for the gods…

Oooo-kay, we’ll take that under advisement.

Not to say that Ol’ Will was the first playwright to put his hand to manslaughter. The Greeks were Agamemnon-izing their characters way back in the BC. Murder-most-foul has always found its way into the spotlight (or whatever Sophocles used to illuminate a scene.) So when the murder mystery novel came into being, it was only natural that the theater and its actors should crop up within those pages. The following list is not meant to be comprehensive, chronological or anything else multi-syllabic. With the understanding that theater-themed whodunits are really too numerous to mention, I’ll now proceed to mention some…

[We'll start with the obvious...]

Oct 18 2014 11:00am

Horrific Hijinks: When Abbott and Costello Met Frankenstein

It was recess in St. Mary’s schoolyard. A handful of us boys, all eleven-ish, were discussing the merits of an old film recently re-broadcast on TV. The discussion soon took on the form of a confession, a mutual one, albeit different than the kind we were expected to make in the confines of the church confession booth. The film: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The confession: the fact that, despite the movie being a comedy, it still scared the shenanigans out of us (or words to that effect.) One after another of us came clean; each admission delivered in a semi-hushed tone like you might expect to hear in the confessional. Maybe we were afraid that one of our girl classmates would wander by and learn of our collective unmanliness.

Well, I’m now many years—many years—beyond my schoolboy days. I can finally raise my voice without shame to declare that, yes, numerous shenanigans were scared out of me when I first saw that movie. And that’s the beauty of it. Having recently re-watched the 1948 classic, I can testify that it still offers a lovely blend of chills and chortles. (Forgive me, Father, for I have alliterated.)


Sep 12 2014 11:00am

Mayhem by the Numbers: A Mystery Count-Off

Having recently finished The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers’ golden age whodunit, I had a small epiphany during the re-shelving process. I realized that I have quite a lot of numerically titled mysteries in my collection. Well, friends, my epiphany is your epiphany. For no reason other than whimsy (not to be confused with Lord Peter Wimsey) I give you here a list of mysterious novels and stories whose sole common denominator is that each has a digit in the title. As it worked out, the Brit authors outnumber the Yank ones three to one. Most of these tales date back several decades, and while many fall on the classics side of the genre; a couple are more obscure. From one to ten, allow me to enumerate: 

1) The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Before dipping into the past, we’ll start off with a modern offering. Penned by Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith, this popular series kickoff introduces the resourceful Mma Precious Ramotswe. As the first female private eye in Botswana, Mma Ramotswe plies her trade with pluck, persistence and empathy. Her sign claims “Satisfaction Guaranteed for all Parties” and she aims to please. Precious’s caseload includes con-men, missing persons, and witch doctors, all against the backdrop of Africa’s distinctive landscape and culture. Her Number One is our Number One.

[Come count along...]

Sep 4 2014 2:00pm

The Turn of the Screw: A Gothic Whatdunit

Disturbing specter or spectral delusion? Predatory phantom or primitive fear? Dead face at the window or live madness in the mind’s eye? It’s for you to decide…

In 1898, as the Victorian era drifted towards its close, Henry James added to the world’s trove of ghost stories with a short novel that, to this day, has never lost its punch. James, scion of a New York banking family, had moved to England in the late 1860s and had already established himself as a top-shelf author by the time he wrote The Turn of the Screw. Penned in its author’s trademark ornate style, the novella’s plot is subtle and sinister. A young governess (whose name we never learn) is dispatched to a country house in Essex to give care and guidance to two young orphans. Though the boy has been tossed from his private school for some unspecified “wickedness,” both he and his sister seem to be gentle, pleasant children. Through the housekeeper, the governess learns of two former employees, both now dead, who seemed to have had an unhealthy grip on the children. In the course of the tale, the governess comes to believe that the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are attempting to claim her charges. She senses the presence of the unsavory pair, and, what’s more, she sees them.

[I told you it was spooky...]

Mar 6 2014 10:00am

The Agatha of my Youth: Collecting Christie

Here’s how it commenced: One night when I was twelve, maybe thirteen, I caught the film Ten Little Indians on TV. It was the 1965 version, not the best (see 1945’s Then There were None) but compelling all the same. The set-up and execution (literally!) really grabbed me: Take ten strangers, strand them in an isolated mansion, and toss in some shadowy past sins, a slew of quirky murders, and an embedded killer, and what have you got? The beginning of a Christie reader.  

Not long after that evening, I learned that the person who’d dreamed up that dastardly little soiree was a rather renowned Englishwoman, well-born and cultured, who’d been responsible for scores of cold-blooded murders. That week I invested in my first Agatha Christie novel. It was a Dell paperback called Murder After Hours (aka The Hollow.) The cover art reminded me of the Golden Book Encyclopedia covers: a collection of seemingly random objects arranged in still-life. Here, scattered upon a window ledge, were a glowing flashlight, a crumpled note, a teacup and a revolver. Just outside the cracked windowpane, a large owl—shorthand for all things mysterious—sat on a bare black branch and stared forward menacingly. Good stuff. 

[Keep Reading, It's What Agatha Would Have Wanted...]

Oct 22 2013 8:30am

All Hallow’s Read: 13 Haunting Mysteries (and More!)

The Pale Horse by Agatha ChristieWith All Hallow's Eve soon approaching, here for your consideration are an unlucky number of books that, each in its way, fit the mood of this spectral season. As the above heading implies, many are indeed mysteries while others are merely, well,  mysterious. My suggestions here are skewered towards the antiquarian. There’s one 1992 offering, but the rest reach much farther back—all the way to the 1800s. These books, in no discernible order, run the gambit from novels to story collections to paranormal non-fiction to comic book super-spooker. Pick one or more, douse the lamps, light a candle and curse the darkness.   

1. The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie
The Queen of Deduction provides us with a trio of village witches, an electronic spirit machine, and a black-magic-for-hire scheme. The title refers to an old inn where the mischief percolates. No Poirot or Miss Marple in attendance, but Agatha’s reoccurring alter ego Ariadne Oliver is at hand. The supernatural and the suspicious overlap nicely in this spry whodunit.

2. The Golden Ball and Other Stories
More Christie; more supernatural. At least in part. This one’s a collection of fifteen tales, several which deal with occult themes (mostly the latter half of the volume.) Again, none of Dame Agatha’s series detectives are here, and not all the stories are mysteries, but Christie doing spooky is worth the visit.

[See who else made the ghoulish list!...]

Aug 28 2013 10:59pm

Cheese and Chills: Appreciating 1959’s House on Haunted Hill

House on Haunted Hill (1959), directed by Willam Castle, poster by Scott BrothersJust to be crystal clear, we’re talking about the original now. Not the slick, overblown, CGI-laden 1999 affair. Yes, we’re all about the real deal here: the half-a-century-old public domain classic, the one starring Vincent Price, the inarguably authentic version—House on Haunted Hill, the 1959 model.

The film was directed by William Castle, the B-picture horror impresario who gave the world The Tingler and 13 Ghosts. Castle was the master of movie house gimmicks such as “fright breaks” and “coward certificates.” For Haunted Hill, he boasted a technique called “Emergo” in which a fake skeleton, attached to a wire, darted over the audience’s heads at a pivotal moment. Now, that’s entertainment.

 William Castle and Skeleton, who got a credit in the filmI first saw the film on TV as a kid, and it left its mark. Most likely it was on some regional Saturday night fright show, hosted by some character with bad make-up and a worse nom de ghoul—something like Tombstone Ted or Dr. McGhastly. I was still in single digits and was oblivious to the cheesy aspects of the movie (and they are legion) and, instead, I latched onto its creaky, creepy chills. It was only in later years, once I’d put my hand to mystery writing, that I realized that, in addition to being a ghost story, it was also a nifty little whodunit a la Agatha Christie. In fact, Haunted Hill is clearly an homage to Ten Little Indians (or a rip-off, depending on your viewpoint.) Of course, being a low-budget affair, it had to make due with half the “Indians” of Christie’s thriller. (Fun fact: It's said this film influenced Alfred Hitchcock's low-budget approach to filming Psycho the following year)

[Thus innoculated with respectability, roll the shlock!]

May 28 2013 8:30am

The Noir Haiku of the Black Canary

The canary, like the cat, has many lives. Especially the black-feathered variety (genus Serinus Something-or-other.) The Black Canary, aka Dinah Drake, first spread her wings more than sixty-five years ago in the August 1947 issue of Flash Comics. Since then, she’s gone on to many identities, costumes, teams, and series.

The Canary of the 1940s arrived as a non-powered costumed vigilante a la Batman with a way-cool outfit. She garbed herself in bluish-black fishnet tights, pirate boots, choker, and a blue bolero or Zouave jacket (let the fashionistas determine which). As gratuitously sexy as this getup might sound, it was actually quite sensible and sleek for the modern woman pursing a postwar crime-fighting career. Then there was her hair—long golden tresses that made her look like starlet Veronica Lake. Truth be told, those luxurious locks were, alas, just a wig. When going into action, raven-haired Dinah Drake—like Supergirl, we might note—would slap on a blond toupee. Supergirl probably has some sort of Kryptonian scalp mojo that kept her hairpiece clamped down during battle. Not sure what Black Canary’s trick was.

[A little bird told us... ]

May 11 2013 9:00am

Ten Tense Fates: The BBC’s Accused

At times, Britain’s chief export would seem to be well-crafted television shows in the suspense line. From across the pond, we’ve been given Prime Suspect, Public Enemies, Waking the Dead, and the recent Sherlock. Additionally, we have the mysteries of Inspectors Lewis, Lynley, and Luther (and even some inspectors whose names don’t start with L.)

In the midst of this British Invasion, one series that has perhaps fallen under the radar—despite its excellent writing, impressive acting, and intelligent approach—is the anthology series Accused. Created by Edgar Award-winning writer Jimmy McGovern, it ran two seasons from 2010 to 2012 on BBC for a total of ten hour-long episodes. The series won the International Emmy Award for Best Drama. The fact that it was short-lived (though not for lack of acclaim) makes for an easily consumable packet of probable causes.

[There’s always a story behind the story...]

Apr 10 2013 8:30am

The Crimes of Bruce Springsteen

I saw her standing on her front porch just twirlin’ her baton.
Me and her went for a ride, sir, and ten innocent people died.

This could be the world’s shortest crime novel. It’s terse, evocative, quirky, and sinister. It’s also the opening couplet of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Nebraska,” which chronicles Charles Starkweather’s infamous 1958 murder spree. In the course of his long, high-profile troubadour career, “The Boss” has repeatedly put his pen and guitar to tales of criminality and mayhem. Whether the act is one of all-out evil as in “Nebraska,” or one of petty thievery born of despair, Springsteen’s narratives explore what occurs when someone takes that wrong branch of the road. The Starkweather character goes on to suggest a motive for his actions that, to varying degrees, holds true for many of Springsteen’s lawbreakers:

They declared me unfit to live.
Said into that great void my soul be hurled.
They wanted to know why I did what I did.
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.

[And we haven’t even hit the swamps of Jersey yet...]

Mar 23 2013 2:00pm

Georges Simenon and Maigret Without Regrets

Maigret S'Amuse or Maigret's Little Joke by Georges SimenonI’ve always found Police Inspector Jules Maigret to be a comfortable, comforting specimen of sleuth—comfortable in his own skin, comforting in his routines. Spawned in 1931 by Belgium-born author Georges Simenon, the much-chronicled Maigret plied his trade in the streets of Paris for a hundred and three adventures (75 novels and 23 short stories, with 54 made into films) spanning over four decades. In the course of these, while inevitably zeroing in on the culprit-du-jour, the good inspector always seemed to find multiple occasions to slip into the nearest bar or bistro for a small beer or wine or apéritif  and whatever pub fare was at hand. I’m not sure what the official departmental policy was on such visits, but, judging by his success rate, they served the inspector in good stead. Then there were his pipes. He generally kept two or three knocking about in his coat pocket plus another handful in his office, his favorite being a large briar number, which he referred to as his “good old pipe.” This is part of Maigret’s charm for me—the fact that while getting the job done, he never failed to avail himself of life’s little comforts.

[In Maigret, normalcy's interesting and an investigative asset!]