Thursday, 22 January 2015

Classic Crime Novels

Summer holiday reading … I am digging out some favourite Golden Oldies. How many do you remember? If you are too young to have read them in their heyday, see if you can scare up a few at your local library – they are well worth a look!

Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time" (1951) has her series detective, Alan Grant, laid up with a broken leg. To keep his mind occupied, he investigates the murders of the little Princes in the Tower, with the help of a friend who brings him historical reference books and documents. As the plot thickens, it becomes clear to Alan that Shakespeare picked the wrong perpetrator in Richard III …

But then Shakespeare wasn't going to offend Queen Elizabeth by exposing her granddad's dastardly scheme, was he? Getting rid of the York heirs and marrying a York princess put old Henry VII firmly on the throne, and from then on it was Tudors all the way for the next 118 years.  

Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) has an ingenious plot that thickens almost to the point of curdling! It keeps the reader guessing right up to the Big Surprise at the end.  Even after 75 years, I am not going to insert any spoilers here … there may be someone who still hasn't read it! Or who hasn't seen Hitchcock's brilliant, Oscar-winning movie, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, with Judith Anderson turning in  a brilliant performance as the sinister Mrs Danvers. 

The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins is the oldest book on my list. The plot seems a little naïve to us today and those long Victorian sentences make it a bit of a slow read, but I include it here because it is considered to be the first mystery/detective story. It has all the hallmarks of the classic Golden Age whodunnit: An "inside job" in a country house, lots of suspects and red herrings, and a brilliant investigator who shows up the bumbling constabulary. 

The Moonstone of the title is a diamond, and not a moonstone, an opal or a piece of meteorite as you may have thought. Not just any old diamond, no, this one comes with a curse! Stir in a corrupt Army officer, some Indian jugglers and a murder, and the plot thickens till it curdles.

Have to include Dashiell Hammett, one of the pioneers of the hard-boiled private eye school.  The Maltese Falcon (1930) is the flagship of this genre. The film of the same name (1941) launched the "film noir" genre that dominated American crime fims in the 1940s. It also launched the career of Sidney Greenstreet, casting him as the deliciously decadent and sinister Kaspar Gutman, the perfect counterpoint to the weaselly con man Joel Cairo, played by the ineffable Peter Lorre. 
Sidney Greenstreet
and Peter Lorre
The Greenstreet/Lorre duo went on to delight their fans in nine more films. Quite serendipitously, I caught Three Strangers on late-night TV recently, and I was sucked in … sat there till it ended at 3am, and I was very sorry the next day!

The Day of the Jackal (1971) by Frederick Forsyth is another landmark crime novel, introducing as it did the professional assassin as hero, and going into fascinatingly minute detail of the meticulous planning and preparation that goes into his mission. His impersonal professionalism includes the emotionless killing of anyone who impedes his progress towards his goal, which is the assassination of Charles De Gaulle.
Edward Fox in
The Day of the Jackal
Edward Fox was perfectly cast as the eponymous assassin in the 1973 film – it is a mystery to me why he didn't score an Oscar for it.

The 1930s was the Golden Era of the classic detective story, and Dorothy Sayers was one of the three reigning Queens of Crime. Her book The Nine Tailors (1934) is one of my favourites: the flooded fens, the villagers camping out in the great church on the hill, and the mysterious death in the bell tower … what more could a whodunnit aficionado want? Dorothy Sayers' hero and "detective" is Lord Peter Wimsey.

Lord Peter is the perfect example of the rather upper-crust amateur detective of the era: Margery Allingham's Mr Campion, with his Royal connections (albeit on the wrong side of the blanket) was another such. Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Alleyn was the official deal from the Yard, but he too, had an impeccable aristo background.

John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) is another golden oldie and the first mystery/adventure novel to postulate the dilemma of the man unjustly accused. Assisted by the beautiful heroine, he has to experience dangerous adventures to prove his innocence. This formula became very popular, and Alfred Hitchcock used it in many of his films, notably in his 1935  The Thirty-Nine Steps, which is still the definitive movie of the book, despite three subsequent remakes and two TV series. Hitchcock cast Madeleine Carroll as the Beautiful Damsel and Robert Donat as Richard Hannay,the Intrepid Hero.

Of the dozen or so Hitchcock films with the "wrong man" plot, my favourite is North by North-West, in which Cary Grant is the hapless guy on the run from he-knows-not-whom for he-knows-not-what. Who can forget the crop-spraying plane buzzing poor Cary in the cornfield?

Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) is one of the most chilling portrayals in literature of a charming, plausible psychopath. In a story arc that spans five novels, Tom Ripley gets away with calculatedly killing a dozen people, while enjoying a luxurious lifestyle in the South of France with his lovely wife.  The Ripley novels have been filmed several times, starring amongst others Matt Damon, John Malkovich and Alain Delon as the talented Mr Ripley. 

Over two dozen of Highsmith's psychological thrillers have been filmed, the latest one being The Two Faces of January, starring Viggo Mortensen as a con man and Kirsten Dunst as his wife. Not a bad movie, but my favourite has to be Purple Noon, in which Alain Delon plays Tom Ripley.

Delon was very young then, but showed every sign of the great actor he was to become. Too often very good-looking actors of both genders, are trapped by their beauty into being type-cast in shallow, romantic comedy roles – Delon escaped that and over the years we saw him in some excellent dramas that showcased his talent.
Lana Turner in
The Postman Always Rings Twice

James M. Cain's noir crime fiction often revolves round a passionate but injudicious love affair, which ends in tears.  The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) is my favourite among his novels, and has been filmed seven times. The first version (1946) has never been bettered as a classic film noir. Who can forget Lana Turner in white shorts and peep-toe sandals, dropping her lipstick which rolls to the feet of John Garfield? When he picks that lipstick up and gets his first look at Lana, you just know her rich old husband's days are numbered.

John le Carré pioneered the spy novel that goes into fascinatingly minute detail of the "tradecraft" (a word he coined) used in the clandestine world. His successful "Karla" trilogy spawned a host of imitators, but none managed to capture the atmosphere of the secret life of spies as well as Le Carre, perhaps because he wrote from personal experience.   Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) with its intricate plotting and array of plausible suspects is at once a spy novel, a whodunnit and a fascinating psychological thriller.  The unassuming but indomitable George Smiley is an unlikely hero, but that just adds to the fascination of this trilogy.

With Casino Royale (1953), Ian Fleming introduced the suave James Bond: icon of the spy novel. We were fascinated by the ingenious gadgets, the glamorous girls, the witty repartee, the wicked villains. Sixty years on, James Bond is still saving the world for democracy with as much panache as ever. Bonds may come and Bonds may go, but to me Sean Connery is preserved in amber as the quintessential Bond, James Bond.

A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977) is the first novel in Ellis Peters' Chronicles of Brother Cadfael. Cadfael is a veteran of the Crusades who has had enough of war and has settled into the monastery where he tends the gardens, brews herbal remedies and solves any crimes that come his way. This well-researched and elegantly written series is addictive and has been turned into a successful TV series starring Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael.  I don't like the series much, I prefer to read the books. You know how you watch the movie in your head while reading a book? Well, in my head I have cast Brendan Gleeson as Brother Cadfael and that's all there is to it.  No offense, Sir Derek.

Rosemary's Baby is Ira Levin's best-known novel, but to my mind his first murder/thriller, A Kiss Before Dying (1953), is far and away his best work. Bud Corliss is a young man with a humble background, but a burning ambition. He seduces and tries to marry (for the money, of course) Dorothy, daughter of a very rich man, but the plot thickens and he has to murder her. He then moves on to her sister Ellen, with the same result. It is only when he becomes engaged to the third sister that suspicions are aroused, and he gets a very satisfactory come-uppance in the end.

Hillary Waugh's mystery novels are not as freely available as they were in the Fifties and Sixties – I have to trawl the used-book shops for them.  Last Seen Wearing (1952) is my favourite and a pioneer of the "police procedural" genre. My copy is yellow and brittle, but I still take it out for a spin about once a year. College girl who diasappeared turns up dead and pregnant – astute detective interprets cryptic clues from her diary to pinpoint who the boyfriend/murderer was. Cleverly plotted page-turner, hunting down the dastardly cad who thought he would get away with it.

The Mystery Writers of America gave several of Hillary Waugh's books its highest accolade, the Edgar Award. Here is a trivia question just to make this article more interesting:

Why is the Edgar Award so called?

After Edgar Allen Poe.
After J Edgar Hoover.
The name Edgar comes from old English and means Searcher After Truth.
After Edgar Rice Burroughs
After Edgar Wallace

(No, I'm not telling – look it up!)

Michael Gilbert is another highly acclaimed novelist in the spy and mystery genres, whose work is now mostly out of print. I particularly like his stories about Mr Calder and Mr Behrens, two cynical, middle-aged spies/hit men. A lawyer himself, many of his books had a legal setting. One such is Smallbone Deceased (1950), a wryly humorous novel that consistently makes the Top Ten lists of all-time best crime fiction.

While he practised as a lawyer in London, one of Michael Gilbert's clients was Raymond Chandler, the creator of private eye Philip Marlowe and writer of The Big Sleep. Chandler's "hardboiled" crime fiction couldn't be further from Gilbert's subtle style, but I like to think that they had some interesting chats about their work. The fly on the wall would have been fascinated!

Baroness James of Holland Park, known to us as P.D. James the acclaimed mystery novelist, died in November 2014 and her Adam Dalgleish series will be sadly missed. Poet-cum-detective Dalgleish is a complex character, almost as interesting in himself as the plots that he unravels.

Her psychological thriller, Innocent Blood (1980), is a stand-alone novel and to my mind her best. Its rather disturbing plot is a memorable one and this book is rightly a regular on the Top Ten lists.

Tony Hillerman is known for his mystery thrillers that are based in a Navajo setting. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are his series detectives and the books are very informative and interesting about tribal customs and rituals.  A Thief of Time (1989) is one of the best in the series, and the one that I am re-reading this summer.

Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate (1959) was a runaway bestseller, and the 1962 movie gained two Academy Award nominations. (The 2004 remake was a very indifferent film: one wonders why they bothered.)  The original starred Lawrence Harvey as the young army officer brainwashed into becoming an assassin, and Angela Lansbury as his mother, although she was in fact only three years older than Harvey when she played the part.

Frank Sinatra turned in a tour de force performance as Major Bennett Marco, the officer who smells a rat, tracks down the baddies and foils the dastardly plot. Sinatra was really a very good actor and thoroughly deserved the Oscar he got for his part in From Here to Eternity. Who knows what heights he may have reached in the acting profession were he not handicapped by The Voice?

Ed McBain's "87th Precinct" series were among the early police procedurals, wth an ensemble cast of characters that developed as the series went on. Sadie When She Died (1972) is one of my favourites: the title doesn't seem to make sense, but at the startling denouement of the story, everything fits together and we see exactly what it means.

Ed McBain was a pseudonym: under his legal name of Evan Hunter he wrote several highly acclaimed stand-alone novels, the best-known of which are The Blackboard Jungle and Strangers When We Meet.

Edgar Wallace: there is a real blast from the past!  I still like to dip into his books, old as they are.  In his heyday (which was roughly the first 30 years of the 20th century), he was a prolific writer of crime and adventure stories. His work was vastly popular: he churned out screenplays, stage plays, nearly a thousand short stories and 184 novels. If there had been bestseller lists then, he would have topped them. Modern readers will know him best for having written King Kong, the short story and the screenplay. And they may have heard of, if not actually read, some of his best-loved series: "The Four Just Men", "Sanders of the River" and "Mr. J. G. Reeder".

Patricia Highsmith is best known for her Ripley series, but Strangers on a Train (1950) was also a landmark thriller that inspired many stories along a similar plotline: that of two people who each commit a murder on behalf of the other. Alfred Hitchcock filmed the book in 1951 and cast his daughter Patricia in the role of the first murder victim.

Both Highsmith's novel and Hitchcock's film have been imitated in books and films ad nauseam. Think of the movies Throw Momma from the Train, Once You Kiss a Stranger, Dead End, and episodes from TV series like CSI, Law & Order, and even The Simpsons. Bollywood has also churned out a couple of films with that plotline … two that I know of, and who knows how many that I don't!

So … if you are bored this summer, there are plenty of classic Golden Oldie books and films out there … go find 'em! You may get hooked …


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