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Showing posts by: William I. Lengeman III click to see William I. Lengeman III's profile
May 4 2014 11:00am

The Impossible Crimes of Thomas Banacek

Banacek came along just a bit before my time. When it began airing again on cable recently, the name rang a bell, but that's all. I'm pretty sure I didn't watch it back in the day—at about age 11—but I suspect that my parents might have.

I don't care much for cop shows and I'd always assumed Banacek was just that—another cop show. But as I skimmed those little one or two sentence show descriptions that are part and parcel of digital cable these days it occurred to me that there might be something more to it. There was.

Turns out that Thomas Banacek is not a cop at all, but an insurance investigator. Which sounds like a decidedly less than riveting premise for a TV show, but there's a little more it than that. Turns out that Banacek is a somewhat dashing and debonair insurance investigator who's called in to help when various high-ticket items (and occasionally people) go missing in a way that seems to defy logic or explanation.

[Well, now that's more like it…]

Jan 1 2013 1:00pm

Crime-Solving Couples of Yesteryear

In kicking off an article about amateur detectives of yore, most of whom just happen to be married, the obvious opener would a play on the phrase “’til death do us part.” Since I’m not clever enough to come up with anything I’ll invite the reader to insert their own. In any event, here are a few great couples from way on back. Some are best known for their appearances in fiction while others are remembered for their time spent on the big screen.

Tommy & Tuppence: Chronologically speaking I suppose you’d have to start this list with Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence (Thomas and Prudence Beresford), though perhaps there were other crime-solving couples who predated them. Starting with The Secret Adversary in 1922 (supposedly the first Christie work to be filmed, six years later), they appeared in a total of five novels and a story collection over the next half century. Unlike so many ageless fictional series characters they actually grew older in these successive appearances.

[Give us more classic crime-solving couples!]

Oct 12 2012 1:00pm

(Please Let) Norman Bates, Rest in Peace

Psycho (1960)I liked Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as much (and perhaps even a bit more) than the next person. When I watched it again a few years back I found that it didn’t pack quite as much of a punch as it had all those years earlier when I first saw it, but it was still worth watching to admire Hitchcock’s skill in creating it.

As I recall I didn’t find the idea of Psycho II (1983) particularly appealing but I watched it a time or two way back when and seemed to remember that it was okay. Okay, as in okay for the sequel to a masterpiece by one of cinema’s great directors, made as the standard cash grab a few years after said director had passed on. The plot of this first sequel finds the esteemed Mr. Bates (improbably) released from an institution twenty-some years down the road and trying to make a fresh start, but of course things don’t go so well.

This led to Psycho III (1986), as these things so often do. Anthony Perkins was still on board as Norman Bates and this time around he’d also taken over in the director’s seat. For the life of me I can’t remember if I saw this one, but given my penchant for watching every bit of horror and slasher-related cinema that came down the pike in those days I’m guessing that I did. Although it obviously didn’t make much of an impact.

[That’s probably why it didn’t die on impact...]

Apr 28 2012 12:15pm

The Poisoner’s Bookshelf

If you’re going to get bumped off outside the pages of a mystery novel, chances are pretty good that you won’t be the victim of poison. It’s more likely that you’ll be shot, stabbed, or clubbed. As of 2008, according to the Department of Justice, the most popular methods of doing away with someone in the United States were guns, knives, and blunt objects, in that order. Poisoning fell into the sixth-ranked All Other category along with other miscellaneous means of mayhem such as explosives and narcotics.

According to another source, in 2009 nearly 15,000 emergency room visits were caused by “drug-related intentional poisonings.” Pharmaceutical and illicit drugs were involved in many of these cases, oftentimes in combination with alcohol, but the report gave no indication of whether any cases involved such good old-fashioned mystery novel standbys as arsenic, strychnine, and so on.

[Don’t try this at home...]

Apr 12 2012 10:30am

Sherlock Holmes’ Odder Fodder: Curious Books Featuring the Great Detective

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes features stories by Neil Gaiman, Stephen KingAs of May 2011, Guinness World Records claimed that Sherlock Holmes was “the most frequently recurring character on screen,” having been portrayed in 238 films. As far as books that chronicle Holmes and Watson’s adventures, there have been countless volumes published, in addition to those by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Trying to determine how many Holmes books there are may be an exercise in futility, one that recalls Lear’s quip, “that way madness lies.” One site lists more than 300 “novel pastiches in which Sherlock Holmes is at least one of the main characters” and literary luminaries from John Dickson Carr to Michael Chabon to Stephen King are among the hordes who have tried their hand at writing about Holmes. Even listing some of the more offbeat works of Holmes-inspired fiction and nonfiction is a daunting task, but there’s a fairly comprehensive list at unclubables.

[“I had no idea that such individuals exist outside of stories....”]

Mar 26 2012 10:30am

Isaac Asimov’s Black Widowers

Isaac AsimovThe late Dr. Isaac Asimov was nothing if not prolific. By most estimates he turned out more than 500 books on a wide variety of topics in a working lifetime that apparently spanned about a half century. Asimov became a household name with his popular works of science fiction, including the Foundation Series and numerous others. After his science fiction, Asimov was probably best known turning out a heap of non-fiction books that looked at various science-related topics written with a lay audience in mind.

What’s probably not quite so well-known is that Asimov also wrote a number of mysteries. They comprise a small percentage of his massive total output, but number just over a dozen books in all. Many were short stories, but Asimov also wrote several respected novels that successfully melded science fiction and whodunits (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun).

[Asimov’s mysteries hold timeless appeal]

Mar 19 2012 10:30am

The Lone Wolf: From Jewel Thief to Big Screen Crime Fighter

Lately, I’ve become acquainted with a number of detectives of yesteryear, not through the fiction written about them, but rather from the filmed adaptations based on that fiction. There’s Hildegarde Withers, for instance, Stuart Palmer’s spinster detective, who worked hand in hand with a gruff police inspector named Oscar Piper. More recently I’ve started tuning in to the cinematic exploits of Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles, who only appeared in one book, but who wound up on the big screen in six movies.

Louis Joseph Vance, author of more than 40 novels and creator of The Lone Wolf series. Then there’s The Lone Wolf. Until Turner Classic Movies showed a number of The Lone Wolf movies a while back I hadn’t even heard of this particular fictional creation. Louis Joseph Vance was a prolific author who wrote more than forty novels but his main claim to fame nowadays are the eight volumes he wrote chronicling the exploits of The Lone Wolf between 1914 and 1934.

Perhaps the most noteworthy fact about The Lone Wolf, whose given name was Michael Lanyard, is that he was a rather cultivated jewel thief who later turned his attention more in the direction of solving crimes rather than committing them. Which is not such an unusual thing in the annals of crime fiction. There’s a long line of such characters—some just plain thieves and some thief/detectives—stretching as far back as The Saint and E.W. Hornung’s Arthur J. Raffles (and perhaps even further), and winding up in the present day with the likes of Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr and Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder. It’s a category of crime fiction so enduring, in fact, that it spawned at least one full-length critical work, The Durable Desperadoes, by William Vivian Butler.

[But the Lone Wolf also stole film credits!]

Mar 4 2012 11:00am

The Big Literary Guns Behind Alfred Hitchcock Presents

Alfred Hitchcock Presents...I’ve watched a number of episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents over the years and given that it recently began airing on the Encore Suspense cable channel not long ago, I’m sure I’ll watch quite a few more. What I didn’t realize was what a formidable presence it was in its day. The show kicked off in 1955 and aired for a total of ten years and 363 episodes before it was all said and done, later garnering a vote as Time’s 18th best TV show of all time.

Quite a few big name actors put in time on Alfred Hitchcock Presents - which later expanded its format and changed its name to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. These luminaries run the gamut, if not from A-Z, then at least from A-W (Ed Asner to Fay Wray) and include Robert Redford, William Shatner, Dick Van Dyke and Peter Falk, just to name a few of the many famous faces to make an appearance.

[The list goes on...]

Feb 22 2012 1:00pm

Old Mysteries Kindle eReader Love

Old murder mystery novel: The Ticker Tape Murder by Milton M. PropperI’m not particularly fond of books. Well, maybe I should elaborate on that statement a bit. I like to read books. Always have. I can appreciate the aesthetic value of certain types of books, which in my case would mostly be old, slightly ratty and rather musty smelling paperbacks. But as much as I like to read books I don’t really feel the need to own them, at least not anymore. Maybe that’s the end result of a period when I had the pleasure of moving a dozen times in as many years, lugging books around the country. But I digress.

My point (if I haven’t gotten it across yet) is that as much as I like to read books, I am perfectly happy to have them out of my hair when I’m finished with them—either taking them back to the library or trading them back to the used bookstore. In fact, I’d be glad to get all of my books from the these outlets if they would only stock enough of the books I wanted to read. And there’s the catch, since a lot of what I like to read is mystery fiction of a certain age.

[And where might one find that?]

Feb 15 2012 1:00pm

Dead on the Water: Shipboard Murder Mysteries

Death on the NileIt’s probably not surprising that so much mystery fiction is set on cruise ships and similar vessels. This form of travel used to be the only game in town for going great distances across large bodies of water. Nowadays, people are less likely to travel this way out of necessity, but there’s a thriving cruise industry that depends on pleasure seekers taking to the water. For mystery authors, fiction set on the water has the bonus of allowing them to isolate a group of victims/suspects from the rest of the world. Given how much of this fiction exists, it would be foolish to try to look at it all in one short article, so I will stick with some highlights.

Perhaps the greatest of these works doesn’t take place on the ocean, but rather, on one of the world’s most fabled rivers. That is, of course, Death On The Nile (1937), by Agatha Christie, in which famed detective Hercule Poirot must solve a murder while making his way along the river through scenic Egypt. The book was adapted for the big screen in 1978. The movie that pulled out all the stops, combining Christie’s engaging tale with a high-powered cast and impressive location filming.

[Full steam ahead!]

Feb 2 2012 10:30am

Magical Mystery Tour: Houdini’s Appearances

Houdini PosterI never intended to make an informal survey of the many appearances of Harry Houdini in the annals of mystery fiction. It just sort of happened that way. Quite frankly, until I began investigating the matter I didn’t realize that he was a character so beloved by mystery writers—and writers in general, even celebrity authors such as William Shatner, who “co-wrote” a book in which Houdini and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle team up to determine if there really is life after death.

For me, it all started not so long ago when I ran across Conan Doyle biographer Daniel Stashower’s The Dime Museum Murders. I’m something of a lapsed Harry Houdini fan, with my interest in his exploits peaking several decades ago. But there’s apparently a residue of fannishness left over from my childhood and so I decided to give it a whirl.

[All aboard for the tour!]

Jan 29 2012 11:00am

The Schoolmarm and the Grouch: Stuart Palmer on the Big Screen

The Penguin Pool MurderLet’s have a big round of applause for Turner Classic Movies. Nowadays there are any number of ways to access the classic comic mystery movies that seemed to flourish in the thirties and forties but there’s probably no easier way than to point your recording device of choice to TCM and press record. I’ve been catching up on a number of such films this way and as of this writing a Thin Man marathon is only about a week away.

But given the breadth and depth of content on TCM, let’s narrow our focus to one man: Stuart Palmer. A Wisconsin native whose fondess for the exploits of one Sherlock Holmes led him to become a mystery writer himself, Palmer was a busy screenwriter as well. But he’s probably best known for about a dozen and a half mystery books that star a spinster schoolteacher and amateur detective named Hildegarde Withers.

[With a name like Hildegarde Withers, it has to be good!]

Jan 14 2012 11:00am

Murder Among the Gentry: James Anderson’s Country House Mysteries

Gosford ParkI have to confess to a weakness for as many good old-fashioned country house murder mysteries as I can lay my hands on. One of my favorite mystery movies is Gosford Park, in which writer Julian Fellowes and director Robert Altman take this old warhorse of a subgenre and lend it a dimension rarely seen in works of cinema or print.

You could call Gosford Park a tribute to the country house mystery, though it’s much more than that. Also in the tribute category, a trilogy (of sorts) by one James Anderson. In his lifetime, which ended in 2007, Anderson wrote numerous books, many in the crime and mystery genre, but his minor fame these days mostly rests on these three books. The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy (1975), The Affair of the Mutilated Mink (1981), and The Affair of the Thirty-Nine Cufflinks (2003) were all published some decades after the heyday of the country house mystery, but recall earlier times.

[The butler did it!]

Jan 6 2012 1:30pm

The Mysteries of Mysterious Bookstores

Death on Demand by Carolyhn HartReaders of mystery fiction may or may not be the most avid fans of their particular genre but they’ve got to be high on the list. Which might go a long way toward explaining why so much mystery fiction takes place in and around bookstores, and particularly mystery bookstores.

It would take someone much better versed in the history of mystery to cite the earliest instances of this sort of thing, but even I can go back at least a quarter of a century or so to Carolyn G. Hart’s Death on Demand series. which concerns the exploits of amateur detective and mystery bookstore owner Annie Laurance Darling. The series—and the bookstore, which is located on a South Carolina island and tourist destination known as Broward’s Rock—share the same name: Death on Demand. So does the first book in the series, which was published in 1987 and found a group of mystery writers serving as chief suspects in a series of killings. If it sounds like something you might like to read, take Hart heart. Hart has written nearly two dozen installments of the Death on Demand series thus far.

[We demand more deadly bookstores!]

Dec 10 2011 11:00am

The Hallmark of Mystery and the Mystery of Hallmark

Hallmark logoMost of us probably know Hallmark as the greeting card people, but if your cable TV lineup extends beyond the basic selections you may have noticed that somewhere higher up there in the channel range is a creature known as the Hallmark Movie Channel. While Hallmark’s not going to give Hollywood a run for their money anytime soon, they do generate quite a few original movies, including nearly 250 Hallmark Hall of Fame titles alone over the course of several decades. 

Jane Doe on the Hallmark ChannelAmong Hallmark’s output of original films are a number of series that might be of interest to mystery fans. They include Jane Doe (starring Lea Thompson), which chronicles the adventures of a soccer mom type, who also happens to work for something known as the Central Security Agency. There is also McBride, which stars John Larroquette as a crime-solving lawyer. And the Jesse Stone movies, although not made for or by Hallmark, air frequently there and chronicle the adventures of the popular Robert B. Parker character. 

[A wealth of mysteries you may not even know exists awaits your viewing pleasure.]

Aug 9 2011 10:45am

Maybe Mystery Mashups

Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula Graphic NovelTrends may come and trends may go (though I’ve got a case of Pet Rocks stashed in the basement for when they make a comeback). One recent publishing trend that may have already seen its heyday come and go is the so-called mashup novel.The first of these, apparently, was the rather popular Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It was a collaboration, of sorts, between Jane Austen and one Seth Grahame-Smith. Other titles in this vein have included Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Little Women and Werewolves, and Mansfield Park and Mummies.

Whether or not this particular trend has fizzled out is not for me to say. But I have it from a dubiously reliable source that there are a number of classic crime and mystery titles about to be subjected to the mashup treatment:

The Hound of the Baskervilles and Scooby-Doo

The Big Sleep and Bedbugs

The Mystery of Edwin Drood with Reanimated Drummers from Spinal Tap

Tales of Mystery and Imagination and Plumbers with Low-Riding Pants

The Postman Always Rings Twice and Cujo

The League of Frightened Men with Reality Show Producers

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and J.R. Ewing

The Maltese Falcon and Count Chocula

Murder on the Orient Express with Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders

The Talented Mr. Ripley and Smurfs

Farewell, My Lovely Winged Monkeys

William I. Lengeman III is a freelance journalist with a fondness for gourmet tea and traditional mysteries. He writes about the former at Tea Guy Speaks and the latter at Traditional Mysteries.

Jul 20 2011 9:45am

Overlooked Cozies: The One-Armed Trapeze Artist

Always wanted to join the circus? Get your freak on with this overlooked cozy!

The one-armed trapeze artist at work


The Three Faces of Clem (A One-Armed Trapeze Artist & Schizophrenic Ventriloquist Mystery)

By Misty Mister

A one-armed trapeze artist with a tenuous grasp on reality, Hoon Skelbert divides his time between occasional performances with a rundown circus and managing a schizophrenic ventriloquist named Clem Helm and his sawdust sidekick, Woody.

When a high wire artist who displays a marked antipathy to the little wooden dude is found one night with the lion tamer’s whip driven deeply into his mouth and out the back of his head, foul play is suspected. The finger of suspicion points directly at you know who and it’s up to Hoon and Woody to clear Clem’s good name.

Be sure and check out the complete collection of Overlooked Cozies.

Image from Kevin J’s photostream, edited with permission.

William I. Lengeman III is a freelance journalist with a fondness for gourmet tea and traditional mysteries. He writes about the former at Tea Guy Speaks and the latter at Traditional Mysteries.

Jul 17 2011 3:00pm

In Praise of The Paperback

Everyone needs a used book storeI count myself fortunate to hang my hat in a city that’s home to three very large used bookstores. They stock a bunch of other stuff and they actually bill themselves as entertainment exchanges, but for my money they’re just big buildings full of enough used books to make you go weak in the knees.

What this means for mystery fans is more used hardcover and paperback mysteries than you can shake a blunt object at. What it means for yours truly is a whole big heap of mystery paperbacks. Which is not to say that I would never read a mystery hardcover. I have and I am and I will again - when the situation demands it. Fortunately, my preference for classic or traditional or Golden Age mysteries or whatever you want to call them means I have a pretty good chance of scoring something worthwhile on the paperback shelves.

[What’s so special about paperbacks anyway?]

Jul 11 2011 9:45am

Overlooked Cozies: A Dance Instructor Mystery

What do a badger, a flat-footed dancer, and a weaponized parasol have in common? Check out this latest Overlooked Cozy and find out.

Dances with Dancers (A Dance Instructor Mystery)

By Lummy Ginnsue

It would never have occurred to Leonard Hinchmisty to let his flat feet or double-jointed knees slow him down in his obsessively single-minded quest to open his own dance studio. Then came the cruel twist - on the eve of the grand opening, Mrs. Edna Phullapuddy, the town busybody, hoofs it off of this mortal coil, courtesy of a parasol driven deeply into her skull. This, only days after the unfortunate incident in which a small wolverine was secreted away in her capacious pillbox hat. If Leonard doesn’t soon get stepping and solve this caper he’s likely to find that the jig is up and all his dreams are in limbo.

Be sure and check out the complete collection of Overlooked Cozies.

William I. Lengeman III is a freelance journalist with a fondness for gourmet tea and traditional mysteries. He writes about the former at Tea Guy Speaks and the latter at Traditional Mysteries.

Jul 8 2011 10:00am

Nero Wolfe Leaves Home

Before I Die by Rex StoutI rarely leave my house. I do like it here. I would be an idiot to leave this chair, made to fit me.  Nero Wolfe - Before I Die

Most of us are probably familiar with one or more high-profile agoraphobes, such as writer Shirley Jackson, Beach Boy Brian Wilson, and perhaps most notably, the reclusive billionaire, Howard Hughes. Then there’s arguably the most famous fictional agoraphobe of all time, if that’s even a correct diagnosis.

I’m talking about Nero Wolfe, the larger-than-life gourmand, orchid grower, and private detective, who is loathe to move his robust seventh-of-a-ton from his famed brownstone in the interests of plying his trade. Oh, and he’s not all that inclined to leave the house for any other reason, now that you mention it.

[Wolfean detecting isn’t a big calorie-burner. . .]