CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER: The Best Short Adventure of Ellery Queen


“There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and then talking over its head. ‘Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,’ thought Alice, ‘only, as it’s asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind.’”


It’s the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ final week holding forth on the topic of “Costume in Crime,” and I have to say that the group has mined gold with this one. Kate at Cross Examining Crime has been gathering all the entries here. If you have a few minutes, go check them out. Many Golden Age writers, filmmakers, and, as I discussed last week, even comic book creators, have incorporated disguise and costume in so many interesting ways that you’re sure to find something to your liking.

Ellery Queen has been a favorite author of mine since I was a teenager, part of a triumvirate that includes Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. It’s harder to pin Queen down to a specific style because the authorial team of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, the cousins who created Queen, significantly transformed both their hero and their tone several times throughout their long career. They began with studies in pure ratiocination, often at the expense of characterization. These mysteries, with their international-flavored titles (i.e. The Greek Coffin Mystery), offered complex puzzles, complete with a literal challenge to the reader, and are many fans’ favorite Queen novels. After a short second period, influenced by the women’s magazines in which the novels were serialized, that were heavy on romance and light(er) on bedevilment, Dannay and Lee found a balance between a focus on puzzle and a deep interest in the psychology and ethics of human behavior, with an emphasis on man’s relationship to the spiritual. The authors asked us to consider what propels a person to decide to commit murder, and to, in effect, usurp God’s mastery over life and death.


If I was pushed into a corner to compare my three favorite classic writers, I might offer the following highly arguable positions:

First, here are three prolific authors, all of whom wrote many pure gems, as well as some very bad books. For Christie and Carr, most of those stinkers stem from the beginning and end of their careers. One can also argue about Christie’s passionate but awkward love for political thrillers and Carr’s similar attitude toward historical mysteries. But a person’s choice of Queen’s worst is affected by two factors: one’s preference in terms of Queen’s different periods and the fact that each change creates a learning curve in an author that can result in a whole new set of bumps in the road and some less than satisfying results at each point in Queen’s career.

Here’s the other gross generalization I will make about these three authors: in a ranking of favorite novelists, I suspect that Queen is most likely to come out third best on most people’s list out of the three, but when it comes to short fiction, he definitely should rank as number one. Christie’s short stories, charming as some of them are, tend to illustrate her shortcomings as an author, such as a tendency to rely on formulaic settings and characters, and they fall short on her strengths in that her talent for misdirection is, of necessity, abridged. As for Carr, his bold, sprawling writing style both benefits, and occasionally suffers, from his ability to spread out across the larger canvas of a novel. He managed a few fine shorts, like “The Devil in the Summer House,” but Carr was definitely more in his element in the long form.

Frederic Dannay especially understood the short story, a fact that we have all benefited from for years due to his work as both an author and an editor. In what was virtually the reverse for Carr, the short form gave free reign to Queen’s mastery over the puzzle and left no room for some of the grandiose excess of ideas found in his novels. Carr thrived on the macabre, while Queen eventually wrote in a more naturalistic vein. And while the later novels tended toward ultra-seriousness with their exploration of “the God complex”, the short stories focused on the puzzle and did so in amusing ways.


Nowhere is this more evident than in the final story from Queen’s first collection, The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1934). “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party” really is a perfect little tale, not only as a puzzle but for the insight it offers us about Ellery’s character. The collection appeared at the tail end of the run of internationally titled novels, when the detective was about to undergo his first major transformation. The Ellery we meet at the start of “Tea Party,” on a dark and stormy night, bears no resemblance to the supercilious prig introduced in The Roman Hat Mystery. As he stands in the rain-drenched Long Island train station, he regrets having ever accepted an invitation from Richard Owen, a mere acquaintance. Queen is sure that at some point he will be pressured to perform:


“People were always pushing so. Put him up on exhibition, like a trained seal. Come, come, Rollo; here’s a juicy little fish for you! . . . Got vicarious thrills out of listening to crime yarns. Made a man feel like a curiosity.”

Gone is the superior attitude found in the early novels. Ellery is just tired. But he has come to Owen’s estate to help celebrate the birthday of his host’s little boy, “a stringy, hot-eyed brat” named Jonathan, because it will afford Queen the chance to meet the enchanting stage actress, Emmy Willowes. He just hopes that he can enjoy a pleasant get-together without anything strange occurring over the weekend.

I ask you: what chance is there of that happening?

And so it is that Queen walks in on the dress rehearsal for a birthday party . . . and I finally make the connection to this month’s theme. With an actress of Miss Willowes’ caliber on the premises, something special is planned for Master Jonathan: a live reenactment of the Mad Hatter’s tea party from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The cast features Emmy as Alice, Mr. Owen himself as the Hatter, his wife Laura as the Dormouse, and the Owens’ neighbor and friend, Paul Gardner, as the March Hare. Completing the party are Paul’s wife Carolyn, whose every quality screams femme fatale, and Mr. Owen’s genteel but malicious mother, Mrs. Mansfield.

The opening scene, set against such a whimsical background, contains enough tension amongst the members of the house party to fill several chapters of a much longer work and sends Ellery off to bed in a disquieted mood. Thereafter, many people, Mr. Queen included, find themselves wandering about during that storm-tossed night, and the household awakes the next morning to find that their host has disappeared. And with that, Ellery literally steps through the looking glass into a topsy-turvy case full of impossibilities and scattered through with references to Lewis Carroll’s classic fairy tale.

Has Owen been killed or kidnapped and, whatever his fate, where is his body? Who is responsible for the zany occurrences that follow, including the delivery of a group Mickey Finn and the arrival of a series of bizarre presents, each addressed to a different guest? On the one hand, the case boils down to a simple equation, but the circumstances that pile up around it are what make it so unusual, and the fun lies in discovering the surprising yet logical reason for all the odd events. Best of all is how the whole story takes on the dream-like tone of an adventure in Wonderland, where a bottle marked “Drink me” can have disastrous results and where the pathway to the truth may be strewn with nonsensical things.


Forty-one years later, NBC chose “The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party” as the only episode of its wonderful but short-lived series Ellery Queen to be based on an actual Queen story, and it is easily the best episode of a marvelous bunch. The daffiness of the source material is present from the start, although several minor changes to the original are made that are quite fascinating. Richard Owen becomes Spencer Lockridge, a Broadway producer, and Ellery has come up to Lockridge’s home to discuss having one of his books turned into a play. He has to endure a P.R. man who keeps calling him “El” (played by the marvelous Jim Backus). For some reason, the beautiful Mrs. Gardner and the mousy Mrs. Owen switch places, and Owen/Lockridge’s mother becomes his mother-in-law. Emmy Willowe becomes a much more prominent character as she tries to charm and pressure Queen into letting her play the lead.

Once the house party goes to bed however, the original story asserts itself, and the adaptation is faithful and well-done. In fact, I would venture to say that this episode is the most successful film adaptation to date of a Queen-penned story. Its utilization of costume is charming, and one can only hope that someday Queen’s work will be rediscovered, republished and readapted to the screen in a more satisfying manner.

THE CAPE AND THE COWL: The Ultimate Costumed Detective


Murder at Mystery Castle has everything you could desire in a Golden Age detective story. Take one exotic setting: an ancient medieval castle that has been taken apart and reassembled, brick by brick, on island cliffs overlooking a modern American city. Add a powerful victim, one James Barham, munitions manufacturer, who has invited four guests to his palatial home. Give each of these guests a motive, build up the tension amongst the group, and then invite one of them to murder Barham by exotic means, turning one of the primitive weapons the victim collected against the collector!

It only takes a moment for the local sheriff to declare, “It’s too much for me . . . “ Whereupon he sends for the city’s greatest private detective, who brings his trusted Watson along. After interviewing suspects, examining the scene for physical evidence, and nearly getting killed twice, the detective gathers his suspects together, springs a trap and unmasks the murderer, who happens to be the only suspect with an alibi!


Oh, and he does it all . . . in full costume!

The Tuesday Night Bloggers have designated Costume in Crime as their October theme. So far, I’ve talked about the many ways Agatha Christie’s villains employed costume as a tool to commit the perfect murder, and I discussed a half dozen or so examples of costumed characters found in film mysteries. Today, I’d like to raise an example that had a profound influence on my life before Christie, before I began to seriously study film, heck, before my voice even started to change. I’m talking about the costumed crime fighters found in comic books. And more than any other, I’m talking about . . . Batman.

Now before you scoff, you scoffers, hear me out!

Costumed heroes feature prominently in literature. The first to usher in the 20th century was probably The Scarlet Pimpernel, created in 1905 by the Baroness Orczy, whose ties to the Golden Age are irrefutable, as she also invented two more traditional detectives, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard and The Old Man in the Corner. The Pimpernel was in reality an English gentleman, Sir Percy Blakeney, who used disguise in order to help the revolutionaries in France. Blakeney shares a similar background with Zorro, who first came to life in the 1919 story The Curse of Capistrano. In this origin story, a California nobleman, Don Diego de la Vega, dons a cape and a mask in order to fight crooked politicians and all others who would prey upon the weak and defenseless. Nobody suspects either of these men of being heroes because the personalities they effect as members of society’s elite are so contrary to the stalwart and strong heroes they become once they don a mask.

At its height, American radio got into the act with a vengeance. In 1933, Texas Ranger John Reid put on a mask to battle crooks as The Lone Ranger. Like Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Lone Ranger’s career spawned multiple iterations in movies and on TV. Beginning in 1948, a comic book version of The Lone Ranger ran for 145 issues and then appeared again periodically over the years. Even Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s faithful companion, got his own spinoff. In 1936, Britt Reid, a newspaper publisher by day, transformed himself into the Green Hornet and, with the help of his masked assistant/chauffeur Kato, became a powerful vigilante. He, too, appeared in film serials, comic books and a TV series.

I watched all the exploits of all these masked heroes on TV when I was growing up. I enjoyed all of them, but their adventures paled in comparison to the exploits of the invulnerable guy in the blue tights and red cape and, above all others, the figure in the dark cowl whose bat-like appearance struck fear in the hearts of all ill-doers.


Created in 1933 by two high school students named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Kal-El of Krypton was blasted to Earth in a rocket when his home planet exploded. Exposure to our yellow sun gave him the amazing powers that earned him the moniker Superman, the archetype of the modern hero. Superman subsequently appeared on the radio, in early movie serials, on television in many different series starting with George Reeves’ portrayal from 1952 to 1958, in films that continue to this day, and even in a musical comedy called It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman.

Superman is pure science fiction, but along with his many heroic exploits, his was the tale of an outsider trying to fit in with the rest of humanity. How lucky that the blankets he was wrapped in were red and blue because when he turned them into a costume, he became emblematic of his adopted nation. When I read Superman in the 1960’s, his exploits were more tongue in cheek, with our hero dashing madly around trying to hide his secret identity from snoopy Lois Lane or cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. His villains were almost played for laughs, like the Toymaker, who looked like comic actor Ed Wynn, or Mr. Mxyzptlk, the sprite from another dimension with a bad case of hero worship/envy. Even Lex Luthor, Superman’s nemesis, was reduced to a man who sought vengeance on the Man of Steel for causing . . . the loss of his hair!?!

Superman’s secret identity, a staple of the costumed hero, was also rather ridiculous. He became Clark Kent so that he could hang out with common mortals and befriend them without risking their safety. But in terms of disguise, who was he really fooling? This beefy guy, who is perhaps the world’s most famous living figure, puts on a suit and a pair of glasses . . . and nobody recognizes him?? Don’t ask me why I could believe all the Krypton stuff but always found Clark Kent almost impossible to swallow.



But I want to talk about Batman. And the reason I want to talk about Batman – beside the fact that he is in every way the bomb – is that more than any other comic book hero, I think Batman deserves a niche in the Golden Age of Detective fiction. He was created by Bob Kane in 1939, and although he was also a member of the privileged class (like the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro), his reasons for becoming a hero were personal, grounded as they were in the world of a city mired by crime. As a boy, Bruce Wayne was walking home with his wealthy father and mother one night when they were attacked by a mugger, and Bruce witnessed the death of both his parents. He would brood about this event for years and ultimately train himself to take on all criminals with the added incentive that one day, he would find and catch the man who made him an orphan. (There have been many versions of this story. The one I like the best is the first, where Batman ultimately tracks down, stalks and captures the man responsible for his crime-fighting career, only to discover that his parents’ killer was a sniveling nobody.) Thus, while Superman fights crime because he wants to be useful to his adopted planet, Batman’s career provides the foundation for a psychoanalyst’s dream. And while the Man of Steel is literally steel-like with invulnerability and super-strength, the Caped Crusader is non-super, an uncommonly good athlete and martial arts expert who uses his brain as much as his body to bring down the bad guys. I mean, come on, he literally carried a forensic lab around with him!


Superman is surrounded by colleagues and friends, but he essentially works alone so that he can protect those he loves from harm. While the persona of Batman is that of a loner, he is aided by a team, including his trusted butler/mentor Alfred, and, for the longest time, his partner/protégé, Robin, the Boy Wonder. Robin sprang into being literally because the writers were tired of having Batman think aloud to himself all the time and wanted to give him somebody to talk to. It turned out to be a very savvy move. Most of us young guys who read Batman knew we could never be him. But what boy didn’t want to be Robin and fight crime alongside the Caped Crusader? In the same sense, I put myself into Watson’s shoes when reading the Holmes canon, and I felt vastly superior to Hastings as we both accompanied Poirot around from case to case. (Frankly, I was relieved when Christie dropped Hastings altogether. Poirot and I were beginning to tire of having this third wheel tagging along!)


Most important to my embracing the chronicles of Batman was the emphasis placed on solving crimes. His first appearance was n Detective Comics #27, and even as he began to amass what is arguably the best rogues gallery of villains of any comics hero, Batman also focused on solving murders in the Golden Age tradition. And while Superman wore a costume as a symbol of heroism (and because if he fought bad guys in regular Earth clothes, his duds would burn up quickly), “The World’s Greatest Detective” had put a lot of thought into wearing a costume that would strike fear in the hearts of the criminal element that had claimed Gotham City as their own. There is a moodiness about this character that dwells in the shadows, reminiscent of film noir, that you didn’t find in other comic books until the revolutionary rethinking in the 1980’s that had every hero moving in on Batman’s psychologically dark territory.

The air of mystery that surrounded Batman fit right in with the occasional whodunits, with suspects and clues, that he often solved. The Murder at Mystery Castle even includes a “challenge to the reader” before the culprit is revealed. Granted, the whodunit tales don’t display Batman at his best. The clues tend to be quite simple in order to play to the mostly teenaged audience, and the culprits have none of the complexity of Batman’s great adversaries. In a typical story, The Danger Club, Batman joins an exclusive club of danger seekers when a young man, trying to impress the members enough so that they will allow him to join, crashes his car and dies. The boy’s brother threatens the members with revenge . . . and then they start dying. Why, it’s Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men all over again! Bob Kane’s version is rather light on clues and, because it is Batman, much heavier on action. Still, it features a gathering of the club members at the end, and it will come as no surprise to true mystery lovers to hear the revelation that the killer was actually one of their own.


Later on, when Frank Miller took over the fading Batman franchise, many of the best villains, especially the Joker, figured in some fine tales that incorporated all the elements of detective fiction. Comic books have undergone a similar transition to the one taken by Golden Age mysteries from the 1930’s to the present: they have become more focused on the psychology of the characters. Batman has become even darker, a truly dangerous, perhaps unbalanced, vigilante, and the villains have become richer characters, their evil natures balanced by pathos or by a strong sense of identification between hero and villain. It is a tribute to the metamorphosis of the comic book into the modern graphic novel that people of all ages have taken seriously the conflicts generated by a bunch of men and women in tights. And for those of us who most revel in the elements of detective fiction, Batman deserves some attention. In his employment of forensic evidence and his rational sifting of clues, he lays claim, at least in part, to a place in the pantheon of traditional detectives.



I am not a political writer, so tackling this business of Donald Trump through my perferred métier of murder mysteries and musicals seems apt. In my lifetime, I have never seen so bizarre a drama unfold in the top echelons of politics, and I survived George W. Bush! America is essentially run by a two-party system, and one of those parties is imploding before our eyes. The most aberrant aspect of this is the Republican nominee, a man who, in your typical murder mystery, might be the killer, if he were smart, but in the case of Trump, would be the victim.


Consider Sigsbee Manderson, the financier who is murdered in E.C. Bentley’s 1913 classic, Trent’s Last Case:

“Many a time when he ‘took hold’ to smash a strike, or to federate the ownership of some great field of labor, he sent ruin upon a multitude of tiny homes; and if miners or steel-workers or cattlemen defied him and invoked disorder, he could be more lawless and ruthless than they. But this was done in the pursuit of legitimate business ends. Tens of thousands of the poor might curse his name, but the financier and the speculator execrated him no more. He stretched a hand to protect or to manipulate the power of wealth in every corner of the country.”

Does that sound familiar? Trump accumulated his fortune (after dad staked him a loan) by taking advantage of every legal loophole and creating a legacy of cheating and disrespecting those who worked for him, mostly women and people of color. He reneged on payments, declared bankruptcy and profited by it at the expense of others, escaped paying taxes, and in doing so amassed one enemy after another in business. Let’s face it: half of Nero Wolfe’s cases revolve around businessmen of this type, tycoons who garner enough animosity to paint a multiple targets on their backs or, conversely men who murderously lash out at those who stand in their way of their financial or romantic perfidy in the belief that they alone are entitled to the world.

Need more suspects? Trump’s personal life is stuffed with them: two ex-wives and a third he seems to have cheated on (at least in his heart), two ambitious sons, both chips off the old block (one of them fond of spouting comments straight out of Hitler’s playbook), two beautiful daughters, one for whom Trump has admitted to harboring lustful feelings, and a bunch of women oozing out of the woodwork with accusations of inappropriate behavior. Think of Rex Fortescue, the business tycoon whose murder starts off Agatha Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye. Rex is a disgusting figure: an egotist, a gross sensualist, a cheater at business and marriage; it even turns out that his brain is rotting, which explains his increasingly erratic and indecent behavior before his death.


Throughout the course of this political campaign, we have seen Trump act like a colicky baby, a petulant child angered at not getting his way, an ADHD sufferer, a schoolyard bully who rallies his lieutenants to take down the enemy, (“Lock her up! Lock her up!”), a paranoid teenager who refuses to take responsibility for his actions and lies when caught not doing his homework. This might be amusing if it wasn’t so dangerous. Trump is seeking the highest office of our land, not through any understanding of world situations or any particular business acumen. It’s a power grab, which Trump seeks to effect by tapping into and fomenting the legitimate anger that Americans have been feeling for some time and manufacturing real violence out of it. There is no sense of thoughtfulness here, no appeal to the best in our natures, no well-prepared list of policies as to how to make our country better. Everything is “smash and grab,” and underlying it all is the unpleasant suspicion that everything Trump says and does is for his personal aggrandizement and profit. Although he accuses the political establishment of not having the best interests of the people at heart, we have seen no evidence that Trump cares about anyone but himself.

In 1887, Lord Acton made his famous pronouncement in response to actions by the King and the Pope:

“Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”

Literature, including mystery fiction, is packed with characters who have been corrupted by power or who have used the machinery of power to feed their corrupt natures. Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Glass Key (1930) concerns the murder of a senator’s son and the efforts by Ned Beaumont, the best friend of a crooked political boss to solve it. The revelation of the killer is truly shocking but perhaps not surprising, given the ugliness of the political scene that Hammett paints for the reader. Christie tackles a similar notion in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe but from a completely different angle, showing within the confines of a traditional mystery the moral decay power creates in those who wield it. At the end of that novel, the killer puts before Hercule Poirot the argument that the lives and accomplishments of the victims – an oily blackmailer, a silly woman, a grouchy dentist – mean little compared to the accomplishments on the murderer’s resume. In the end, Poirot literally jeopardizes the political health of the nation because he places justice for the individual above the common good.

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In perhaps the nastiest campaign in our lifetime, both the Democratic and Republican candidates have painted each other as corrupt. Trump recently said that Hillary Clinton “has evil in her heart,” while a conservative radio host suggested that Clinton and President Obama are literally possessed by demons, to the point that “they smell of sulfur.” The main argument against Hillary is that she is both a career politician whose long career trail contains frequent pit stops in dishonesty. There is no doubt that, like most people who have held office, Clinton’s stand on issues has undergone radical change, that she has presented herself in different lights before different audiences, that she made, at the very least, poor choices over her e-mails. I have no doubt that she has lied about things. This makes Clinton the perfect target for Trump’s argument that she is an insider, a part of the system that doesn’t work, and that only an outsider like him can make the changes necessary to fix the system.

Except . . . I can’t recall a candidate who seems less capable of effecting change for the better. Cutting through the erratic way Trump speaks, his megalomania, and the paranoid temperament he evinces in response to critics, it’s hard to find a single idea that will truly help anyone but Trump himself and those of his ilk. His financial policies amount to “trickle down” economics with a vengeance. Just look at his child care plan, which involves tax write-offs that working class Americans do not earn enough money to claim. Every policy comes down to the potential for making more money. We should charge our NATO allies more protection money (sounds like a mob boss). We should have taken the oil from Iran, ostensibly to keep ISIS from financing its terrorist machine. (A lot of Trump’s ideas sound like the “rape and pillage” tactics of barbarian leaders of old.) We should eliminate Obamacare, our first, admittedly imperfect, attempt at national health coverage, and privatize health care to make rates more competitive. (Taking cable television as a model, this doesn’t work.) We should stop wasting time on the issue of climate change and up our commitment to coal energy because it’s there. (Same with increasing fracking and drilling for oil deposits, never mind the cost to our environment.) We should smash those who disagree with us or even look at us the wrong way. We should isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. This is all a part of Trump’s presentation, and if it cost Hillary Clinton some points to say that the folks who support Trump’s plan are “a basket of deplorables,” I can understand from watching the rallies on TV whereof she speaks.


I am reminded of “King” Kane Bendigo, the billionaire munitions maker in Ellery Queen’s The King Is Dead, who creates his own fascist government on a private island and kidnaps Ellery to solve the mystery of who is threatening his life without offering the detective a choice. Trump seems to take a page from the fascists at every turn, drumming up support for a “revolution” without a single solid idea of how to make life better. Watching him churn up the crowd to take down the powers-that-be – with violence if necessary – is chilling and has ramped up national anxiety a thousand fold. He whines that he is the victim of a massive conspiracy between the Democratic Party and the media. The number of conspirators rises each day with each new revelation of Trump’s past behavior. As of this writing, he has added the Republican establishment to his list of enemies. Yet, despite the apparent antagonism between the candidate and his party, there is nothing that incites my anger more than the teetering back and forth by the Republicans regarding their relationship to Trump.

The GOP put forth a dozen candidates of varying degrees of experience and position and watched with awe as Trump used his media savvy as a national celebrity and reality television host to . . . well, trump each one of them. Trump presented himself as the consummate outsider. He said that the White House needed a businessman instead of a politician, one whose financial acumen could get us out of a multi-trillion dollar economic hole and solve the problems of our working class, as well as the issues we face overseas, all this using the mentality of a CEO rather than a political wonk. Except that this CEO has cheated and stolen – mostly within the framework of existing tax law – to get what he wants. He has reneged on paying his contractors. He has declared bankruptcy and left whole cities to bear the brunt of these actions while he used the situation to avoid taxes. He had bullied and threatened his adversaries. This is the man our Republican party would seat in the White House.

This past week, as positive proof of their candidate’s misogyny was paraded across our television screens 24/7, Republican leaders have pulled their support and then re-gifted it back. I can only imagine that each morning a memo goes out to every one of them with talking points. This explains why Trump surrogates like Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, and Kelli Ann Conway sit in front of our TV screens using identical language in an attempt to diffuse each horror story that emerges about Trump and to deflect it onto Clinton. My favorite is the counter-accusation that Hillary is the true misogynist because of the awful way she treated the women with whom her husband dallied. There is no doubt that Bill Clinton used his power for sexual conquest. He was impeached for it. His wife was not, and interpreting her anger at the multiple situations in which she was placed due to Bill’s infidelity as misogyny on her part is quite a reach.


The Access: Hollywood video we have watched ad nauseum is truly revolting, so the outrage expressed by figures like Paul Ryan and John McCain is understandable. Yet where were these men when Donald Trump spent a week bad-mouthing Alicia Machado, a Latina and former Miss Universe winner whom he had denigrated for gaining weight? Where were Mitch McConnell and Mike Pence when Trump appealed to racist ideals with his comments about Mexicans and African Americans, when he sought to criminalize the Muslim faith, or when, as part of his “support” for our nation’s police force, he ignored the fact that the Central Park Five were innocent of the charges that earned them years of jail time and demanded they be put back in prison?


Trump trades on the worst impulses in our nature, the jealousies and fears we feel about those who are different from us. It’s bad enough in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Whose Body that the murderer kills a rival in love; the fact that the slaying is rendered even more brutal due to the culprit’s anti-Semitism makes the whole affair even uglier. Trump wallows in such ugliness. He expected us to embrace the idea that a judge of Mexican heritage (though a U.S. born citizen) could not sit impartially at the Trump University trial because of the candidate’s urgent desire to build a wall on our borders. He similarly called Muslims to task for an attack in Florida by a man who had been born and raised not far from Trump himself in New Jersey. I call this racist; Trump calls it reality.

In one week, I will be presenting the musical Evita at our school. Although nothing I put on stage can top the bizarre drama unfolding in our nation, the choice of show is timely. Like Trump, Eva Duarte Peron began her life as a media star. She engaged in many sexual relationships that furthered her hold on the upper echelons of Argentinian society, putting up with the pawing of many powerful men. Her husband, Juan Peron, like Trump promised to improve the lot of the working class citizens, although unlike Trump he was willing to finance much of this by seizing the wealth of the poor. The musical presents Juan and Eva Peron as political opportunists and suggests that many of their plans were corrupt and that the authoritarian nature of Peron’s regime approached fascism, something Peron had studied close at hand during an extended stay in Europe during the 1940’s.


The crowds of common folk admired Peron’s rolling up of his shirt-sleeves and calling himself a man of the people. But they loved Evita. She was a movie star, she was beautiful, and she looked them all square in the face, reminded them of her own roots in poverty, and seized the wealth of the richest citizens for them. (How much of that money actually made it into the pockets of the poor is a matter of dispute.)

Donald Trump channeled his boorish businessman persona into a successful role as host of The Apprentice on TV, encouraging real life people and celebrities to channel their inner shark. He made his way through the Republican primary by flinging zingers right and left, claiming center stage, appealing to the media for his ability to raise their viewership, and essentially saying “You’re fired” to each of his rivals. Then he promised that these media skills would serve the country well on the world stage.

I believe he has more than met his match in Hillary Clinton. If it is necessary to accept that Clinton is part of the political machine, she has used it beautifully to illuminate to the public Trump’s unsuitability for office. Both in her presence and at his rallies, Trump has exuded boorish behavior and spouted offensive taunts rather than ideas. During the past two debates, he has been unable to focus on any one topic long enough to offer a measured argument for his position. He simply hurls mud. If Hillary is guilty of the same mudslinging, at least she does it with grace. Is Hillary as egoistic as Trump? Who knows? She may be. But she has balanced that with a career in public service that has done more good than harm. She has demonstrated a fundamental respect for humanity as opposed to Trump’s contempt for it. And when she faces accusations regarding the e-mails or Goldman Sachs or Benghazi, again she responds with grace. She is a complex person, and some of her layers contain dark material. As a result, she is almost as disliked by her adversaries as Trump, and the race for President, at least until recently, has remained tight.

I for one would rather have a president who can speak with grace, who can look the American people in the eye and diffuse tension rather than foment it, who sees compassion as an adjunct to strength and not as a moral weakness. I would rather have a president who, if this were a murder mystery, would play the part of the problem solver, not the victim or the murderer. I don’t think of the choice this time around as “the lesser of two evils.” Without hesitation, I will be casting my vote for Hillary Clinton.

COSTUME IN CRIME: The Cinema Version


As the Tuesday Night Bloggers devote the month of October to the subject of Costume in Crime, it would be remiss of me not to discuss some of the great costumed characters in the world of cinematic mysteries, many of them based on literary heroes and villains. I mentioned last week how unbelievable it might seem to a reader that your uncle could disguise himself as a milkman and successfully fool the family at breakfast time long enough to sprinkle arsenic on your cereal. Imagine the challenge of making such a stunt credible on the big screen! Granted that film stars in disguise have the benefit of professional make-up artists with years of experience or, in some cases, the use of a stand-in (a cheat, if you ask me!). The theatricality of disguise tends to work better onstage, where the distance between the actors and the audience tends to render a good make-up job more believable.

Still, there are a few cases where movie mysteries that depend on one or more characters donning a costume and/or artfully applying make-up have been successful. I offer here a baker’s half dozen of them. Of course, discussing the use of disguise in any of these films is problematical because . . . well, it tends to give away the ending. I’ve tried to be appropriately vague in most cases, but I urge you to approach with care if you have not yet seen any of the following films: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Psycho (1960), Homicidal (1961), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), Sleuth (1972/2007), Don’t Look Now (1973) or Dressed to Kill (1980).

Gender Bending Slayers


Psycho is a brilliant and frightening portrait of madness, designed to scare the pants off people even if it is not quite the gore fest that people who have just seen it swear it to be. That makes it a horror film, but it is also a terrific murder mystery and one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s few whodunits. In Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel upon which the film is based, the revelations of the culprit’s life and crimes are even more hard-hitting, so in retrospect, Hitchcock did make some of the nastier aspects of the novel more palatable for audiences. At the time, however, he succeeded in shocking packed crowds with a film that flirted with censorship issues right up to its release.

The novel concerns a young man named Norman Bates who lives with his elderly and – to say the least – cantankerous mother in a small town. They run a motel that has been steadily losing business due to a shift in the local highway’s direction. Into Norman’s lonely existence comes a young woman named Mary Crane who has stolen some money from her job so that she and her boyfriend Sam can afford to get married. Mary rents a room, Norman invites her to have supper with him, and this simple connection stirs up jealousies in his mother, resulting in multiple brutal murders.

I’d like to invite those of you who have never seen the movie to pause here. Go and take a nice warm shower while the rest of us discuss.

A R E   T H E Y   G O N E???????

We veteran viewers of Psycho (I have watched it dozens of times and taught it to my film class for years) know the chilling secret about Mrs. Bates: she is a long-dead, preserved corpse, and Norman lives as a split personality as himself and “Mother.” The old woman inside him is flipped on whenever he feels any sexual interest in a young, pretty female, causing her to inhabit Norman’s body and eliminate the competition.

Hitchcock made the savvy choice of casting Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Perkins had been, up to that time, an attractive romantic lead playing shy but appealing young men who easily attracted sexy young girls. That shyness served Perkins well at the start of Psycho. Hitchcock had built up the part of Mary Crane (now called Marian in the film) and cast a star, Janet Leigh. The first forty minutes of the movie suggest that this is Marian’s story and that her love affair with Sam will be complicated both by her poor decision to steal from her company and from an unexpected romantic complication in the person of Norman. He seems to be a good influence on Marian and thus a possible rival to Sam for Marian’s affections, for after dining and sharing intimate talk, Marian decides to return the money.. Perhaps she will return the favor by helping to separate Norman from his domineering mother.

But it doesn’t turn out like that. Obviously, Norman can’t be separated from “Mother.” Yet for the longest time, even after Marian’s horrible murder in the shower she took to cleanse herself of her sins, we believe that we are dealing with two distinct personalities and hope Norman will escape that horrible woman. And we do this because Hitchcock deftly film “Mother” in silhouette, in bird’s eye angles, and from a great distance so that we are convinced that Norman and “Mother” are distinct characters.

In the end, when Norman finally dons his mother’s dress and a wig, his unconvincing disguise is more disturbing than if he had taken greater care with his appearance.. Imagine the shower curtain being pulled away and Marian glimpsing that figure raising a knife to strike. No wonder she was frozen in terror – as was the audience!


One year later, William Castle, the schlockmeister of horror films, who never met a cheap gimmick he didn’t like, sought to capitalize on the success of Psycho with his own gender-bending horror/mystery, Homicidal. This is the story of Miriam and Warren Webster, a brother and sister with some interesting secrets. Their father died leaving his fortune to Warren because Daddy hated women. And now Miriam seems to be reacting to her neglectful upbringing with a spree of stabbings and beheadings. Somebody is in costume here, but I won’t give away the secret, although if doing so spared anyone the agony of sitting through this rotten movie, then maybe I will have performed a humane service. There is no attempt to hide the killer’s disguise with lighting or fancy camera effects. Instead, the director cheats in his casting and in his use of voice-over work, to create the illusion he seeks. It probably won’t fool too many people.

A much better homage to Psycho came about in 1980 with Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill. Like Hitchcock, De Palma misleads us from the start. The movie appears to be about Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), a wealthy but sexually frustrated housewife who, in a beautifully filmed sequence, lets a stranger pick her up at a museum and engages in some steamy extra-marital sex. This proves to be a bad idea on so many levels, leading to a vicious murder inside an elevator. We see the killer in action right away: it is Bobbi, a transgender patient of Dr. Robert Eliot (Michael Caine), who was also treating Kate.


An unlikely trio begins to hone in on the killer, often working at cross purposes with one another. There is Kate’s grieving son Peter, a hopeless nerd, Dr. Eliot, who fears his patient will not stop killing, and Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), a high price call girl, who has glimpsed the killer and thus becomes a target. Since we know the killer is transgender and that De Palma is paying homage to Hitchcock, (and because I’m including this film in this particular discussion), you can be sure that disguise plays an important role in the proceedings. If Bobbi’s “unmasking” doesn’t come as a complete surprise, de Palma proves that he has a handle on generating suspense, and the whole film is great fun.

The Phantom

When people watched Steven Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece Schindler’s List, one of the most harrowing images they took away with them was that of a little girl in a red coat, who wandered through the horrors of the Krakow ghetto in stark contrast to the black and white photography of the film. She seems to represent a small blaze of life and innocence in the midst of these real-life terrors, and we cling to this unknown child and her red coat with a desperate, and ultimately futile, sense of hope.


With all due respect to Spielberg, the image of a little girl in red had already been used to marvelous effect twenty years before in the occult thriller, Don’t Look Now by director Nicholas Roeg. The film is based on an equally haunting novella by Daphne Du Maurier. This is one of the best filmic depictions of grief, largely due to the amazing acting work of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as an architect and his wife, who have recently lost their beautiful little daughter in a tragic drowning accident. In an attempt to move on with his life, John Baxter accepts a commission to restore a church in Venice, and brings his wife Laura along. Their timing is bad: a serial killer is roaming the streets of the old Italian city, and the couple’s fragile state of mind makes it difficult for them to cope both with their unstable marriage and the dangers outside.

Ultimately, John’s focus begins to move toward the figure of a child, wearing a red cloak identical to the one his daughter wore when she died, who appears to him over and over throughout his travels. Is she the ghost of his daughter, or is she a potential victim of the serial killer? John comes to believe that if he can save this child, he can redeem himself for not rescuing his little girl. As the suspense mounts, the viewer becomes bonded with John. Maybe it’s due to the years of reading “Little Red Riding Hood,” where we associate the red cloak with a damsel in distress, that this particular costume becomes such a charged symbol to us. Rest assured, Du Maurier, in her story, and Roeg, in his beautifully crafted film, plays on that association to beautiful effect.

The Masked Duel


Sleuth started life as a stage play in 1970 and has been adapted to film twice. Personally, I think it works better onstage where the distance between actors and audience makes the secrets of the production easier to pull off. Whatever form it takes, Sleuth is an intriguing tour de force about the battle of wits between a sardonic mystery writer named Andrew Wyke and his wife’s young lover, Milo Tindle. At first, it seems that Milo is no match for Andrew, but in a series of surprising twists, we realize that we are dealing with two adversaries worthy of each other.

Reading further without knowing the play will spoil things for you. It comes as no surprise that disguise plays an important part in this mystery. Those who attend the show are being played from the moment they open their programs. Here’s the cast of characters, in order of appearance, from the first film:

Andrew Wyke . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Lawrence Olivier

Milo Tindle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Michael Caine

Inspector Doppler . . . . . . . . . . . . Alec Cawthorne

Detective Sergeant Tarrant . . . . . John Matthews

Marguerite Wyke . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Eve Channing

Police Constable Higgs . . . . . . . . . . Teddy Martin

The true nature of the cast is wrapped up in the notion of costume and disguise. I myself am a big Alec Cawthorne fan. Although his body of work was small, he always makes a solid impression. The role of Marguerite Wyke was added to the film, and personally I think it gives the game away having Eve Channing play the role. But I won’t talk about that now. Later on, I will tell you more about Eve. All about Eve, in fact . . .

Disguise as Divertissement


Two final mystery films must be mentioned for the imaginative and amusing ways in which they incorporate costume/mask into their narrative. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is one of the great Ealing Studios dark comedies, loosely based on a 1907 novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. It is an inverted mystery as it tell the tale of a mass murder spree by a young man named Louis (Dennis Price) out of revenge for wrongs against his mother and, well, because he likes money, respect, and pretty girls. Louis works his way up the lineage of the D’Ascoyne family, homicide by homicide, until he becomes, at least briefly, the 10th Duke of Chalfont.

The particular fun of this film lies in the fact that the eight members of the D’Ascoyne clan are all played by Alec Guinness. Word is that Guinness was only offered four of the roles, but that after he read the script he begged to play all eight heirs. We’re all so lucky he did. My favorite character is the suffragette, Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne, who is shot down from a hot air balloon. Guinness’ portrayal of a woman is a model in elegance and restraint.

The use of costume in Kind Hearts is a joyous stunt. In The List of Adrian Messenger, (1963 – and wonderfully, it’s available to watch on YouTube) it is central to the murder plot and a highlight of a very fine film. Based on one of Philip MacDonald’s final mystery novels, the film is essentially another inverted mystery in that we see the killer in action from the very start. We don’t know who he is for a long while, or even why he is killing a whole slew of men, but we know that he dons a different costume and elaborate mask for each elaborate killing and that he is played by Kirk Douglas. The motive for the murders must be uncovered by sleuth Anthony Gethryn (George C. Scott), helped by his old war friend Raoul Le Borg (Jacques Roux). Although the novel was written in 1959, the story captures the milieu of the Golden Age of detection, with a family mansion, whose members are addicted to fox hunting, as the central locale.


Kirk Douglas is wonderful and is clearly having a grand time with each of his aliases, but the fun doesn’t stop there. Director John Huston further incorporates the concept of costume and mask into the story with the help of some famous actors in cameo roles. One of them plays a victim, and another plays an organ grinder, a casual witness at the scene of one of the crimes. The best use of this device occurs at the climax of the film where Douglas is about to put the final steps of his plan into action during a climactic hunt. All Gethryn knows is that the killer is in disguise, and at this moment, several characters appear on the scene, all of them clearly masked. With tongue in cheek, Huston has added a nice “whodunit” moment to the film: which of these false characters is the actual killer, and which famous movie stars are hidden behind the other latex features? Be sure and watch the final moments during the credits when each cameo star gets to literally remove his mask and show his true face, all to an exuberant score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Asking an audience to accept the notion of disguise on the big screen is a challenge that the best costume and make-up artists have risen to time and again. When it becomes a significant factor in a mystery, these artists are put under great pressure to figure out how to successfully fool viewers. I recommend all these films, even one as inherently rotten as Homicidal to anyone interested in the aspect of disguise as it pertains to mystery films.

DEVIL IN DISGUISE – Christie’s Costumed Criminals . . . AND a Quiz!


When the Tuesday Night Bloggers selected October’s topic – Costume in Crime – I made straight for Agatha Christie, as is my wont. It only took me a moment to cover an entire page with titles that concern criminals in disguise. Christie’s use of this trick is frequent enough and varied enough that I’m sure other bloggers will tackle her. (I can just hear my buddy Kate at Cross Examining Crime scribbling away furiously!) I wonder if, given the nature of the topic, Kate has struggled with spoilers as much as I have. I’ve tried to be mindful by inserting spoilers into specially marked parenthetical paragraphs, but a newish reader of Christie should still enter this post guardedly.


When you think about it, every murderer in every whodunit is, in effect, “in disguise.” The whole point of the game is to hide the culprit’s true nature from the reader by making them seem either physically, psychologically, or emotionally incapable of murder. In terms of physicality, this often boils down to a question of motive. I’ll admit an aversion to writers like Freeman Wills Crofts who reduce characters to pieces in a puzzle and crimes to timetables of events. The case boils down to motive and a suspect’s availability to commit the crime. Characterization becomes unnecessary, which means that there is no disguise. Yet when there’s a modicum of characterization hovering over the proceedings, and I can ask myself how kindly great-Aunt Josephine really is, or if Mr. Pilkington, the lawyer, is as dry as dust as he seems to be, a mystery is much more fun to read, at least to my taste.

But that’s not the sort of disguise we’re talking about here.

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Then there are the wealth of mysteries where people impersonate someone else. Novels like Tey’s Brat Ferrar and Carr’s The Crooked Hinge revolve around the veracity of claimants to a fortune. How many crime novels include visitors from far-off countries or long-lost relatives who may or may not be who they say they are? My favorite Miss Marple mystery has, at its center, not one, not two, but three impersonations, and if other’s have voiced some dubiousness over this arrangement, it doesn’t stop me from enjoying the novel a bit.

But impersonation of this sort is not what we’re talking about either.

Nope, this is October – you know, the month where kids of all ages don a disguise and wander about on Halloween! We’re talking about costumes and make-up! Let’s consider the culprit who physically disguises him/herself in front of people he/she knows in order to directly commit, or abet in, a crime. The short stories are loaded with this device, and over a dozen novels contain an instance where we meet someone in their regular guise, and by the end of the novel, we realize that the crux of the murder plot hangs on the fact that we have also met them in disguise.

The most common reason for a person to put on a costume is to provide themselves (if they are the murderer) or the culprit (in the case of a confederate) with an alibi. This technique appears quite early in Christie’s career and becomes a staple in her bag of tricks. A reader who hopes to pierce through this sort of misdirection would do well to pay attention to the circumstances surrounding the evidence. Did a witness describe a person far too clearly from too far away or on a foggy night? Was the room containing the costumed person dimly lit? Is the eyewitness to a person’s presence a total stranger? Does someone remark casually – never ignore a witness’ casual remark in Christie – that someone did not seem to behave like themselves? Even when we’re given testimony by someone whose honesty is beyond repute – I would say especially when this happens – we need to examine the circumstances to see how that honest person could have been fooled.

(SPOILER EXAMPLE: In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie takes great pains to show that Evelyn Howard has nothing but contempt for her companion’s husband, Alfred Inglethorpe. From the start, she expresses despair that she had introduced Emily Crackenthorpe to her own cousin. This latter fact, plus the description of Evelyn as “about forty, with a deep voice, almost manly in its stentorian tone, and . . . a large, sensible square body, with feet to match . . . “ might clue in the observant reader that, by donning a thick beard, Miss Howard could provide an alibi for the first cousin she resembles. Fortunately, it doesn’t escape Poirot’s attention.)


The second main reason for a killer to don a costume is to enable her/him to be present to commit the murder without fear of being detected. These examples are the most outrageous, sometimes to the point of being ludicrous, but the high risk factor lends them an excitement that (usually) makes us willing to suspend our disbelief. The risk extends to the fact that, in order for us to buy this aspect of the solution, we have to understand how the killer would be capable of such a successful disguise. Having previous experience on the stage can help, but it also raises a red flag for the reader. Therefore, when Christie combines theatrical characters with a disguised murderer, the element of disguise is better hidden. Christie’s fanciful notion of what it means to be a spy often means the presence of a disguise. Thus, readers who pay close attention when the author slips in the fact that a character spent some time in the Secret Service or engaged in something vaguely described as “war work” can consider themselves forewarned. The third occupation that can serve as a warning is the presence of a servant. Christie often lets the British preoccupation with class distinctions serve as a clue: evidently high-class people tend not to pay much attention to those who serve them. This leads to the notable fact that, while Christie never made a member of the servant class a murderer in any of her novels (there are a few in the short stories), many of her murderers committed their crimes quite openly by disguising themselves as servants or other members of the working class.

(SPOILER EXAMPLE: In Death on the Clouds, Poirot figures out the identity of the killer on the airliner Prometheus almost from the start by examining the passengers’ luggage. Norman Gale was the only person to carry a small enough receptacle (a matchbox) to hold the wasp that served as a red herring for the true weapon. Poirot figures out that Gale boldly played the part of a flight attendant in order to get close enough to the victim to inject her neck with poison. As Gail is a dentist, he possessed a white coat that he could wear in order to pass himself off as a steward.

I mention this novel because of a very clever ruse Poirot pulls in order to incriminate Gale. He takes the young man into his confidence and asks for his assistance to gain some evidence by putting on a disguise. Gale’s paranoid fear of getting caught prompts him to disguise himself poorly at first, but when Poirot admonishes him, Gale’s natural egoism asserts itself, and his second disguise is expertly applied. The whole episode is written in a comical vein and even endears us to Gale, making his exposure as a killer all the more surprising.)

The third reason for using a costume is the rarest used and, therefore, the most interesting: in this case, the disguise results in a complete misreading of the situation by the investigators. (SPOILER ALERT) Two excellent examples are the story “The Witness for the Prosecution” and the novel After the Funeral, which to my mind contains the greatest use of disguise in all of Christie. In both cases, a person uses a disguise to plant ideas in people’s heads that, once the case unfolds, will lead everyone down a rabbit hole and make them look at things the wrong way up. (END SPOILER)

I alluded above to the contract an author enters into with her readers to try not to stretch the boundaries of literary reality to the point where they will snap. Yet even Christie occasionally takes the trick so far as to lose credibility with her readers. (SPOILER ALERT) It is ridiculous, for example, to believe that a woman could so forget a man she had married, was no doubt intimate with, and then grew so scared of that she felt relief when he died, that she could then re-marry the same man without recognizing him. Then there are the malevolent women who disguise themselves as two distinct people in Dead Man’s Folly and Third Girl and who have to switch roles back and forth with such breakneck precision without anyone around them noticing a similarity between the two portrayals! In one of these examples, Christie even has the gall to plant the “clue” that, due to a childhood illness, a woman has lost her hair in order to prepare us for her rapid exchange of wigs. For someone who worked for many years in the theatre, Christie should have known that such a “fact” was unnecessary. (END SPOILER)

You could argue that disguise is a cheap trick, even in as unreal a situation as a classic murder mystery. And yes, it seems farfetched to believe that nobody would recognize a close friend or family member if he or she were standing before us in disguise. Christie handles most of these instances well, but she often has to work hard to create the circumstances around which one would buy the success of a disguise, and the results are occasionally less than satisfying. Take the case of the woman invited to a dinner party where nobody knows her well, so she sends a surrogate, even though both the woman and the surrogate are distinct celebrities. Christie really tries to get us to look at the potential of a switch-around in one way, but all we have to do is reverse our point of view and the whole plot unravels. That’s what happened to me when I read that particular title. As a result, it feels like lesser Christie to me.

As you can see, it is well nigh impossible to go into this topic in great depth without spoiling things. Even mentioning a title without going into detail can rob a new reader of a whole aspect of discovery. You will also notice that I incorporated almost no covers or illustrations for fear of giving things away. I apologize to those of you who stuck with me but had to skip around. For those of you who are old hands at reading Christie, here’s a little quiz. Leave your answers below, and I’ll post the solution on Friday:


Match the trick of disguise to the correct Christie title.

  1. The Mysterious Affair at Styles
  2. “The Witness for the Prosecution”
  3. The Murder on the Orient Express
  4. Three-Act Tragedy
  5. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe
  6. Evil Under the Sun
  7. Sparkling Cyanide
  8. The Mousetrap
  9. After the Funeral
  10. “The Dream”
  11. A Pocket Full of Rye
  12. Third Girl
  13. “The Blue Geranium”

a. A psychotic victim of child abuse disguises himself as a policeman to seek out two new victims.

b. A woman disguises herself as her stepdaughter’s roommate –  much ado about nothing results!

c. A millionaire’s secretary pulls off a neat impersonation to make it seem that his boss’ murder was actually the result of a premonition.

d. Beware the deep-voiced woman with the manly figure who would look great in a beard!

e. A rich man travels back and forth from Africa to play a poor working stiff, woos his father’s maid, and sets the stage for three murders.

f. An actress pretends to be a scarred Cockney strumpet in order to destroy her own credibility as a witness and set a murderer free.

g. An actress disguises herself as an American housewife to provide a credible, but false theory of who killed her neighbor (Hint: she did!)

h. A husband and wife disguise themselves as a variety of people, including a dentist and a dithery tourist, in order to save the British government (and get away with fraud!)

i. For the one and only time in Christie, the butler did it (except he’s not really a butler!)

j. A woman hires a gypsy to tell her fortune and winds up dead. How odd that the gypsy only turned up on the nurse’s day off!

k. The waiter did it – twice! A year apart! (And, yes, he’s not really a waiter.)

l. A pair of cunning murderers take advantage of the fact that one suntanned body looks much like another.

m. “But he was murdered, wasn’t he?” (I really don’t want to give this title away, so that’s all you get!)



I had planned to title this post, “One Cranky Voice Among Many,” because today is my one-year anniversary as a blogger. But then I thought, “Okay, you made a small hoopla about your 100th post only a couple of weeks ago, so enough is enough! Plus, you’re not really cranky, just opinionated.”


What has one year of blogging brought me? Well, first and foremost, it has given me a platform on which I can blather on about the esoteric things that interest me. Since nobody else within 100 miles seems to share my interests, I have connected with people (bonus: from all over the world!) who do. These interactions have been so delightful that I count many of these new acquaintances as friends. The Tuesday Night Bloggers, mixed with the “Verdict of Us All” group – Bev, Moira, Curtis, Rich, Noah, Steve, John, and most especially, my staunch amigos Kate and JJ, have given a whole new zing to my lifelong love of mysteries. And I have connected to others over Hitchcock and theatre and other passions. I even have thirty-nine followers, folks! These people are so insightful that, whether they agree or disagree with me, I always learn something from them. And I hope that, if I keep plugging along for another year, by next September I will have forty followers!

But enough about me! Let’s talk about my opinions! I owe the following review to Kate and Curtis, although they don’t know it. Through Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp blog (he who inspired me to start writing this thing!), we have all discovered “new” forgotten authors whom we have praised, panned, argued over and enjoyed arguing over. The first one that really made me jump up and down with joy was Harriet Rutland, who only wrote three mysteries. The first one, Knock Murderer Knock, takes place at a hotel (well, a hydro-spa that also serves as a hotel), and I loved it so much that I bought all three of her books on my Kindle and have spaced them out so that I can savor my Rutland experience. And they only cost ninety-nine cents apiece.


So did the works of Ianthe Jerrold, who only wrote two mysteries, although her books have since shot up in price on Amazon, one to $1.99 and the better one, Dead Man’s Quarry, to $6.15. I still need to buy these. I think I’m waiting for a sale!


Eilis Dillon is an Irish writer whose prolific career, funnily enough included only three mysteries. Her first, Death at Crane’s Court, also takes place at a hotel. The price for her books on Kindle is $3.99 a piece which still isn’t bad! I mean, you have to hand it to the folks at Amazon who are making it easy for those of us looking to rediscover writers from the classic era of mysteries to collect new writers, at least virtually. (I did read Death at Crane’s Court, although spent much more on an actual book at The Mysterious Bookstore in NYC. I enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as Rutland’s debut.) Next, Kate heaped high praise on another forgotten female mystery writer, Margaret Armstrong, who – you guessed it – only wrote three mysteries, the first of which was Murder in Stained Glass. This does not take place in a hotel, but it sounded interesting, and guess what? All three of Armstrong’s mysteries can be found for ninety-nine cents in the Kindle bin! So I decided on a whim to purchase them all.

Of course, Amazon, always the clever marketing strategist, immediately popped some more writers on my page: “IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU’LL LOOOOVVVE THIS!!!” “This” proved to be an American author named Anita Blackmon, who wrote – yup! – three mysteries in the late1930’s. Two of these books feature a female sleuth named Miss Adelaide Adams, who is described as “irascible.” Well, that’s a great word. Plus, the first mystery, Murder a la Richelieu (1937) takes place in a hotel! Feeling I was on a roll, I purchased the two Miss Adams mysteries, both costing – stay with me now – ninety-nine cents. (Oddly enough three different publishers handle Adams. Black Heath Classic Crime charges 99¢, while Lost Crime Classics charges $3.99. I bought the cheap copy, but I have just discovered that the more expensive one includes an introduction by Curtis himself! That might make the extra cost worth it. Curtis actually mentioned these books on his blog,  but it was a year before I discovered this virtual world of mystery fans, so I didn’t know!


It’s fascinating how the two publishers describe the book differently. Black Heath stresses the mystery:

Adelaide Adams is a tough old spinster, living a quiet life at the Hotel Richelieu, somewhere in the southern United States. But her peaceful existence is shattered when a man is found brutally murdered in her room. More murders follow and, as suspicion falls on all of the hotel residents in turn, Adelaide teams up with the handsome salesman Stephen Lansing to solve the crime. But with a psychotic killer on the loose, they find that amateur sleuthing is not the safest of pass-times…

Sounds interesting, right? That’s the blurb that sold me. Then I found the Lost Crime Classics version, which focuses on the comedy element:

In the opening pages of “the old battle-ax” Adelaide Adams’ debut appearance, Murder á la Richelieu, Anita Blackmon signals her readers that she is humorously aware of the grand old, much-mocked but much-read “Had I But Known” tradition that she is mining when she has Adelaide declare: “Had I suspected the orgy of bloodshed upon which we were about to embark, I should then and there, in spite of my bulk and an arthritic knee, have taken shrieking to my heels.” Unfortunately, Adelaide confides: “There was nothing on this particular morning to indicate the reign of terror into which we were about to be precipitated. Coming events are supposed to cast their shadows before, yet I had no presentiment about the green spectacle case which was to play such a fateful part in the murders, and not until it was forever too late did I recognize the tragic significance back of Polly Lawson’s pink jabot and the Anthony woman’s false eyelashes.” Well! What reader can stop there? . . .

So is this book supposed to be a parody of a classic mystery from the pre-Golden Age in the Mary Roberts Rinehart tradition. Let’s look inside and see what we’ve got:

The Richelieu Hotel services both residents and transient tourists. Why tourists might come to this town we may never know as, through the entire novel, nobody seems to leave the building. Adelaide has lived off her considerable inheritance at the Richelieu for a great many years. We learn that she once gave up the love of her life to care for her invalid father, and she does not wear her spinsterhood with much charm. She devotes a lot of her narration telling us what’s wrong with everyone around her. (In all fairness, she is sometimes hard on herself as well.) She makes snap judgments about people, most of which turn out to be wrong. She throws her considerable weight around, terrorizing or annoying employees and guests alike over trivial things in her trivial life. She even has hard feelings for her best (and only?) friend, Ella Trotter, because the woman enjoys winning at cards too much. She harbors old-fashioned sexist attitudes about her own sex, agreeing with one lovelorn female character that “women are kittle cattle.” Most unpleasantly, she displays the casual racism for the African American labor force who work at the hotel, each of them depicted in gross stereotype. This was no doubt the status quo mindset for faded ladies of the South at the time. I don’t know if this is a stab at characterization on Blackmun’s part, or if it reflects beliefs founded on the author’s own upbringing (she’s from Arkansas), but it still stinks. Since there was no warning about this when I read the blurb and the five positive reviews on Amazon, consider yourselves warned.

Adelaide is surrounded by people – a lot of people – in this book. There’s the proprietress of the hotel, Sophie Scott, who used to be close to Adelaide until Sophie married the highly unsuitable Cyril Fancher, who seems to hold a dark secret in his willowy frame. Could it have something to do with the series of young waitresses who come and go through his employ at the hotel coffee shop? All of these women seem to bear some dark secret! There’s the beautiful Kathleen Adair and her addled mother, whose closeness masks dark secrets. Then there’s the gay young Polly Lawson, who lives for some reason with her Aunt Mary at the hotel. Polly used to have an understanding with clean-cut banker Howard Warren, but for some reason, she has started stepping out with the dashing cosmetics salesman and roué, Stephen Lansing. By the way, I forgot to mention that all four of these people have a dark secret. I also need to add Lottie Mosby, who also lives at the hotel and has been stepping out on her drunken husband Dan with, of all people, Stephen Lansing. There’s something dark and secretive about that couple, if you ask me. Then there’s Pinkney Dodge, the night clerk, known to everyone as Pinky because “it suited his weak eyes and pinkish hair.” His obsession with his mother puts me in mind of another hotel clerk; clearly, Pinky has his own dark secrets as well. And I would keep an eye out on Hilda Anthony, a voluptuous woman “of questionable reputation” who came to this small backwater Southern town from New York in order to obtain a divorce and then has spent all her time since living at the hotel in order to find a rich husband. Since that goal is impossible to obtain at the Richelieu, Hilda must have a dark secret! Especially as she spends all her time frolicking with Stephen Lansing! (What is the secret to your stamina, sir?)


These people live and/or work at the hotel and never seem to go anywhere else. They eat all their meals at the coffee shop, and most of them seem to sit around the large lobby people-watching and muttering about the tourists, or entertaining each other in their rooms. It’s putters along on the strength of Adelaide’s (or Blackmun’s) writing style, which is floridly old-fashioned and includes a lot of those references to the HIBK school of mystery that are described in the Amazon blurb. This style is not really to my taste and took me by surprise. That’s what comes of reading the cheap blurb!

Into this menagerie comes a visitor from New Orleans named James Reid, who snoops around a lot and tries without success to ingratiate himself with Miss Adams. Imagine Adelaide’s distress when one afternoon she enters her room to find Mr. Reid hanging from her chandelier by a rope, his throat cut. Enter Inspector Bunyan of Scotland Yard . . . oh, I wish. No, he’s the local homicide detective, and despite his dogged efforts, people keep dying on his watch, sometimes quite literally under his nose. It doesn’t help that the suspects all refuse to cooperate until the end when a mountain of unleashed dark secrets threatens to crush the hotel – and this reader – under its weight.

I can’t help but pull out Rutland’s Knock, Murderer, Knock once again for a comparison, and Blackmon’s plotting, characterization, and prose creak a lot more. In true American style, the murders are all much gorier at the Richelieu, and the secrets revealed about many of the guests are surprisingly salacious. The plot goes a rat-a-tat-tatting along, but it lacks Rutland’s cleverness and genuine humor. The developing relationship between Adelaide and Stephen Lansing (who emerges as the true hero, no surprise there) is one of the high points of the novel, and by the end they work together to bring down a number of criminal elements. Still, Miss Marple she ain’t! If I had been a resident of that hotel at the time, I could have pointed to the killer in a jiffy, prevented three more murders, and saved everyone a lot of trouble.


So now I find myself faced with the second Adelaide Adams mystery on my queue. There Is No Return takes place at yet another hotel, where the ghost of rich heiress Gloria Canby seems to be gunning for her surviving relatives. Luckily Adelaide Adams has joined her friend Ella for a vacation at the very same hotel, where she’s just too crabby to believe in ghosts and decides to solve a murder or two. And I’m left wondering how much I am up for another ride with this cantankerous old biddy.

But then, it only cost me 99¢.



When I saw that Rich Westwood was celebrating all things mysterious from 1930 all month at his blog, Past Offenses, I quickly checked out the literary scene at the time. Folks, this year was golden! Nearly every member of the Detection Club seemed to churn one out that year, and some of them created landmarks with the novel they published: Agatha Christie debuted Miss Marple in novel form! Dashiell Hammett had begun serializing The Maltese Falcon the previous year, but it all came to a head in 1930. And perhaps, most notably for readers of Golden Age mysteries, a young Pennsylvanian made his debut, a lover of Poe with one foot firmly planted in the history and literary style of Europe, a man whose fascination with magic and the impossible would soon earn him the title of the Grand Master of the locked room mystery.


Yup, I’m talking about John Dickson Carr, the guy who invented Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale; the man who came up with nearly every variation on the impossible crime and inspired countless others to give it the old college try; the man who set the bar high for radio mystery programs, including writing most of the early scripts for the classic series Suspense.

In addition to his mastery of the locked room and all its variations, I consider Carr one of the four best handlers of misdirection, the other three being Christie, Ellery Queen, and Christianna Brand. (Is it any surprise that this lover of misdirection has just named his four favorite mystery authors?) As far as Carr goes, I was fairly selective, reading all of the Gideon Fell novels, but skipping the rest (except for The Burning Court – a classic!) I am slowly making my way through the Sir Henry Merrivale titles written under the pen name Carter Dickson. But before either of these portly gentlemen graced the pages of mystery fiction, there was Bencolin.


Henri Bencolin, the juge d’instruction of the Paris police force, appeared in early short stories by Carr and as the sleuth in the first four novels the author wrote. He reappeared once more in 1938’s The Four False Weapons and then, as far as I can tell, disappeared forever more.

1930’s It Walks By Night introduces us to Bencolin and to Carr himself. As in many early Carr novels, an earnest young gentleman narrates It Walks by Night. Jeff Marle has come over from America to Paris and has looked up an old friend of his father’s, one Henri Bencolin. Bencolin promises to look after Jeff, yet I can’t say that I would place much faith in a man if he put my son through the events to which Bencolin subjects Jeff. They go to a torrid club where gambling and intrigue mask even more lurid crimes, and there they get involved in the murder of a young Duc, who has the ill fortune of being decapitated on his wedding night. Of course, his body is found in a room, the entrances of which were watched at all times, and nobody went in or out.

The investigation proceeds, and more deaths occur or are uncovered, each more gruesome than the last. Bencolin, who claims at the start that he knows the truth to every case almost immediately, leads Jeff and his team on a storm-tossed ride before he unmasks a surprising killer.

Now, debut novels are tricky to review or analyze. An author is clearly just beginning to establish himself, not only as a plotter but in the way he sets a tone for things to come. Each book, by necessity, either gets stronger as one begins to master the tricks of the writing trade, or the writing falls into a dull sameness and the author fades deservedly into obscurity. I can say that this was in many ways an auspicious beginning. It certainly grabs your attention and shakes you over and over until it tosses you exhausted in a pile on the floor. Yet I wasn’t sure that I really liked it. I had to talk to somebody else! And there’s nobody I would rather talk about Carr with than one of the blogosphere’s staunchest fans of the author, Monsieur JJ from The Invisible Event, who has graciously agreed to discuss the novel and the author with me.


JJ, thanks so much for joining me today. Let’s plunge right in: What do you see in this debut that begins to establish Carr as the author he would become at the pinnacle of his success?

Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere.  If we’re calling Carr’s peak the 1940s (and they were), he was at a stage then where the dropping of a single adjective could completely change the comportment of a scene or the response it incited in you.  Here, he’s guilty of somewhat over-writing to ensure he gets his point across, but even then there are some beautifully descriptive and succinct expressions — ‘Surprising how a match-flame can blind one against a darkness moving and breaking like whorls of foam on water!’ has always stuck with me, especially given the context of that match.  It’s Carr’s atmosphere that brings me back time and again — the plots are absolute marvels, but marry them to lifeless settings and you’re getting nowhere — and you see the very nascent threads of that here.

I was blown away by the graphic violence found in this novel! Each murder was more gruesome than the last! It reminded me of those old Tales from the Crypt comic books! Care to comment?

Part of me sees this as the natural extension of it being so over-written, the almost grand guignol aspect of how hideous it all is.  No-one will get that alarmed over a stolen book of stamps, but horrible, violent, foul, repulsive murder…well, that’s something to stir the (ahem) blood.  It brings home how unusual a thing it is, in spite of those of us who immerse ourselves in this kind of book on a regular basis: the ending of someone’s life in this way is a ghastly thing, and should be written in a ghastly way.

 It’s interesting how some Golden Age writers wrote in a style meant to lull us into believing that this whole event – the murder (or series of murders), the suspects, the clues, the grand reveal – all could exist in a reality much like ours. Indeed, in his biography of Carr, The Man Who Explained Miracles, Doug Greene explains that Carr consciously wrote in an unrealistic style, although he certainly tamed the flow of adjectives as he matured. Greene says of this novel, “We don’t investigate the crime; we are fooled by it. Our attention is directed toward the supernatural, toward the innocent characters, toward everyone and everything except the true solution until Carr, and Bencolin, are ready to reveal it.”


How do you yourself rate the quality of the plot? (I have to admit that I guessed the killer because one early piece of misdirection seemed to stand out to me – I wouldn’t put this in the post but it’s when Mme. De Saligny says that she saw her husband walking into the card room and everyone caught a glimpse of someone who could have been the Duc.)

There’s not so much plot as there are “events around what’s going on” to my mind.  There’s a huge amount of ancillary material that can be disregarded, once you look back at it.  Let’s not claim Carr cracked the perfect puzzle plot at his first swing — he had to wait until The Problem of the Green Capsule for that — even the impossible angle of IWbN is kinda weak when you come to explore it.  So I’m not disagreeing with Doug Greene.  He still hasn’t talked to me after the last time . . .

 Ha ha! We’ll save that juicy story for another day . . . Anyway, you, Greene, and I agree that IWbN is overwritten. I freely admit that I prefer Carr’s novels that find more of a balance between the supernatural and modern domestic British life, books like He Who Whispers and The Crooked Hinge. Where do you stand in your preferences, if you have any?

I agree, but I also think The Crooked Hinge has the same problem — as does The Plague Court Murders, and Hag’s Nook, and . . . well, many others.  I don’t know if I have an overall preference in the type of Carr, but I’m more of a fan of Fell than I am of H.M, and there are many moments in Fell’s books where he’s described as watching someone very intently and it always gets the hairs on the back of my neck going.  If Carr ever wrote a book where Fell sat in a corner and just stared at people, I’d probably read it every month for the rest of my life.

I agree with you in my preference of Fell over H.M., but neither one is in evidence yet. In 1930, Agatha Christie introduced Miss Marple in novel form (Murder at the Vicarage), the perfect sleuth for a traditional village mystery. Carr gives us Bencolin. He certainly fits with the aura of horror that drips from each page here. I have to say, though, that he kind of drives me crazy! How do you rate Bencolin among Carr’s sleuths?

Carr himself tried to backtrack on Bencolin come The Four False Weapons, having the character much more relaxed and even (I’m pretty sure) apologizing for or excusing his attitude in the earlier books.  I like his abrasiveness — he was intended as a sort of anti-gentleman sleuth, with no smooth corners — and I sort of wish Carr had maintained that.  But since we never really know him, I can’t lament the absence of more books featuring him.  Carr got what he needed out of Henri and moved on.  That’s great.  I’d rather he ditched Bencolin and brought Fell to life than we never get Fell and have 35 Bencolin novels.

carr1                 french-powder-mystery1

One year earlier, Ellery Queen made his debut. I know you just reviewed The Roman Hat Mystery and are about to do the same with Queen’s second novel, 1930’s The French Powder Mystery. So here are two Americans, peers if you will, and they are completely different in influence and style. Why did Carr make it to your top four Kings of Crime writing and Queen did not?

Urf.  At a fundamental level, they did the same thing: produced superlative puzzle plots that can be held up as shining examples of the genre, dazzled readers with their ingenuity time and again, operated across several different mediums, and undoubtedly changed the lexicon and direction of detective fiction in the 20th century.  So why Carr ahead of Queen? Carr was a far superior writer in my eyes, produced more legitimately stone-cold classics than Dannay and Lee (again, personal opinion and coverage key factors here), and seemed to be having a lot more fun while doing it.  Those early Queens are hard work, man — I had to quit on French Powder because, crikey, wasn’t it ever a drag — whereas Carr had a quick start and just always seemed to be enjoying himself so much, never simply grinding them out to prove how smart he was even if they were a chore to trudge through.  I’d pick a Carr novel ahead of any Queen novel to convince someone to give the genre a go, and he seemed more interested in the writing than the brand (witness the countless Queens not written by who we mean when we say “Ellery Queen”).  But I know you’re not happy about it, and I’m sorry.  Will you please stop prank calling me now?

Oh, dear, I seem to have made you uncomfortable . . . . . good! But I’ll grant you that some of those early Queens are damn near impossible to re-crack while no Carr novel has ever stopped me cold. Maybe it’s because Queen was influenced by Van Dine, who is very hard to read today, while Carr was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe. Still, his literary heart was mostly rooted in Europe, where he lived for many years. Both in setting and in tone, his writing was less realistic, more fantastical, like a Grimm’s fairy tale with none of the original nastiness excised for children. Is this part of Carr’s appeal for you, or does his style ever distract you?

I read Carr for the style, for that moment when a tennis court becomes a lethal place, or a flesh and blood man is snatched out of a sealed, guarded room.  The supernatural aspect never really plays into it for me — the Grimms were big on the supernatural, of course, but Carr’s use of it is (almost) exclusively to dispel it with a rationale hewn from something more ingenious than you realised possible in the circumstances.  It’s the way his brilliance for exploiting every situation is always ticking away that I find most compelling about Carr, and naturally the style of his writing — the way he chooses to present it — is a massive part of that.

A fascinating fact I learned in Greene’s book is that Carr’s “masterpiece”, The Three Coffins, (which I admit I’m not terribly fond of), was originally intended to mark the return of Bencolin under the title Vampire Tower. And it’s true that TTC is jammed with atmosphere, much like IWbN, more than the usual Dr. Fell novel (and minus the usual allotment of humor). I understand that Carr became disenchanted with his first sleuth, calling him “unreal . . lifeless . . . a dummy!” But do you think that Dr. Fell fits any better into this story?

I did not know that!  It would have been an interesting fit for Bencolin…but I suppose it’s a question of which Bencolin: the apologist version of Four False Weapons wouldn’t quite have worked, the horror of it all would have overwhelmed him, I feel.  That driven, heedless, arrogant man of Carr’s first works would have met the challenge full-on and probably also been crushed beneath its wheels.  It’s undoubtedly a most Fellian case at it stands, I can think of no better detective in fiction to have taken it on — it needs the reassuring presence of a man who can pick up a few books in the study where a murderer has just vanished across a field of unmarked now three storeys down and quietly deduce the entire history of the victim of said killer from just a few notes in the front of the volumes.  The magnificence of Fell is how secure you feel in his presence, and he is absolutely the rock around which the waves of that case break.


I want to thank my very special guest, JJ, for volunteering time out of his busy life to answer my questions and offer his insights on Carr and much more. (JJ, I will wire you the location of your car keys and your dog, as I promised, as soon as I post this.) And thanks to everyone who’s reading this for joining us on this exploration into the origins of one of the greats! I’d love to hear about your experiences with John Dickson Carr in the comments below!