No voracious reader of detective fiction will complain [about Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s: A Library of America Boxed Set], since these were all better-than-average books of their era, which was no mean feat in the days that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler defined the new prose of the hard-boiled American crime novel. It’s just that the uniting theme—declared in the book’s introduction and echoed in its many reviews—is that women authors of those days were unfairly oppressed by mystery publishers and neglected by mystery readers, but those women nonetheless managed to create, unnoticed, the never-seen-before genre of the psychological and domestic crime story.
Joseph Bottum says this theme is nonsense (via Prufrock).
The most famous one-armed man in television history is, of course, the murderer hunted by Dr. Richard Kimball on The Fugitive. But I don’t have him in mind in this post. I never actually watched The Fugitive much.
But I have fond memories of two television series from my childhood, each of whose main characters had one arm. Why one-armed characters resonate with me, I cannot say. The reasons are probably emotionally complex and embarrassing (I had one character lose a hand in my novel Wolf Time, and another lose a whole arm in Troll Valley). But I’m delighted that YouTube has made it possible to rediscover these series, at least in part. My viewing report follows.
The character of detective Mark Saber had an interesting evolution. According to my internet research (not always coherent), he began as a British detective working (for some reason) on the police force of a large American city on an early US TV series called Mystery Theater. He was played by Tom Conway (not to be confused with comedian Tim Conway). Tom Conway was the brother of famous movie heavy George Sanders, and spent his career in his brother’s shadow. His character dressed nattily, and (judging by the one episode I found on YouTube) fought crime more with fisticuffs than with deduction or forensics.
The show ran from 1951-1954. Then in 1955 the character was resurrected back in the old home country in a new series called The Vise. Mark Saber was now a London private investigator, and was now played by Donald Gray, a native of South Africa who lost his left arm in France in World War II. I’ve only found a couple episodes of this series on YouTube. Here’s one:
Crime novelist Phyllis Dorothy James, also Baroness James of Holland Park, died today in her home. She was 94.
Her publisher states, “This is a very sad day for us at Faber. It is difficult to express our profound sadness at losing P. D. James, one of the world’s great writers and a Faber author since her first publication in 1962. She was so very remarkable in every aspect of her life, an inspiration and great friend to us all. It is a privilege to publish her extraordinary books. Working with her was always the best of times, full of joy. We will miss her hugely.”
In this interview last year, Lady James talked about growing old with this, “All things rather close down eventually. I was waiting for the old brain to shut down, but I do hope that is the last thing to go.”
Since the Foyle’s War mystery series has been broadcast in this country on PBS, all of you probably enjoyed it long before I did. But in case I’m not the last person in America to catch this excellent program, I’ll give my own viewer’s response here.
Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (splendidly underplayed by Michael Kitchen) is chief detective in Hastings, England, during World War II. A sort of running joke in the series is that he desperately wants to do something “more important” for the war effort, but again and again is denied the chance, sometimes because there’s a case he feels he needs to see through to the end, and sometimes because his stubborn integrity makes him enemies in high places. Later on, when the war is winding down, he just wants to retire, but keeps getting pulled back in.
Foyle is a smallish, unprepossessing man, but steely in his character. He’s the kind of superior officer who can flay a subordinate alive without raising his voice. Nevertheless he’s very popular with his underlings, and has a sly, dry, sense of humor.
He is assisted in his inquiries by two regular supporting characters—Samantha “Sam” Stuart, his military driver (played by an actress actually named Honeysuckle Weeks, who’s not conventionally pretty but is nevertheless entirely adorable), and Detective Sergeant Paul Milner (Anthony Howell), an early war casualty with an artificial leg. Together they investigate at least one murder each episode, often connected to war profiteering, espionage, and military secrets. Foyle isn’t always able to arrest the sometimes well-protected culprits, but he does all he can and never gives up under any pressure less than direct orders. In such cases, he never leaves the stage without laying out the moral case. Continue reading Netflix review: “Foyle’s War”→
I recently finished P.D. James’ The Murder Room (2003) beautifully read by Charles Keating. It is a straight-forward detective novel with enjoyable depth, but not really twists and turns. I see The Complete Review has reviewed it more, um, completely than I plan to here.
The story reveals the three siblings who are trustees of a small, unique museum named Dupayne in the London area opposing each other on whether to sign a new lease and allow the unprofitable museum to continue. Several others associated with the museum are walking around, and, of course, someone gets torched. No, it isn’t an accident, even though some characters want to believe it was suicide.
As I listened, I kept thinking about how the second murder yet to come would change the way I interpreted the details. I thought two or three people could have murder the first person, having motive and opportunity, but why would they kill someone else? I didn’t figure it out ahead of time.
I wonder if James’ mysteries have more to offer in the side trails than on the main road. The Murder Room has a warm chapter with the two of the detectives interviewing one of the fringe couples out of routine. It was a young couple with a baby, the husband being connected to a Paul Nash painting in the Dupayne museum. James’ choice of words in this chapter impressed me as geared toward highlighting the life of the child and this poor couple. They had very little, but they were tied to the past by the husband’s father and grandfather’s interest in that painting, and somehow it seeded hope for them. More so, some words appear to be inspire the reader to reflect on what is being aborted when that ugly choice is made.
Detective Inspector Kate Miskin’s wrestling with British class conflicts and arguments about the nature of girl’s education enrich the story as well.
And why murder? The central mystery of a detective story need not indeed involve a violent death, but murder remains the unique crime and it carries an atavistic weight of repugnance, fascination and fear. Readers are likely to remain more interested in which of Aunt Ellie’s heirs laced her nightly cocoa with arsenic than in who stole her diamond necklace while she was safely holidaying in Bournemouth. Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night doesn’t contain a murder, although there is an attempt at one, and the death at the heart of Frances Fyfield’s Blood from Stone is a spectacular and mysterious suicide. But, except in those novels of espionage which are primarily concerned with treachery, it remains rare for the central crime in an orthodox mystery to be other than the ultimate crime for which no human reparation can ever be made.
Maxine is calling for suggestions on strong detective novels written by women in response to David Montgomery’s list, 10 Greatest Detective Novels, which did not have one female author. Block, Chandler, Crumley, Hammett, Stout, and others make Montgomery’s list, and he explains in the comments on Petrona that he doesn’t like P.D. James and further: “My favorite contemporary female detective writers are probably Laura Lippman and Denise Hamilton. I think they’re both great writers, but neither quite cracked the list.”
An interesting discussion has begun. One commenter notes the dominance of American writers. That seems only natural to me. We, Americans, are the best in the world at everything, except maybe soccer and automobiles, so naturally we write the best detectives novels.