Monday, June 30, 2014

The Magrs Method of Book Reporting: "Hammet Unwritten" by Owen Fitzstephen (aka, Gordon McAlpine)

Encapsulate the plot of the book in one sentence?

Writer Dashiell Hammet suspects the black falcon statuette he once kept as a momento before giving it away might be a powerful talisman key to his early success...and sharp decline in his career and personal life in its absence.

What's your verdict?

Dashiell Hammet worked as a private detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency and quit when his writing career blossomed. He did claim that the villains featured in The Maltese Falcon were based on people he encountered while on assignment at Pinkerton's, but the falcon case was pure fiction; the statuette was inspired by a jeweled skull owned by Phil Haultain,  a Pinkerton agent who worked with Hammet in the 1920s and kept it in a safe in his office.

Hammet Unwritten is a fictionalized retelling of Hammet's life, particularly the final two and a half decades, in which he seemed to be adrift, creatively,  personally and professionally. In 1934, he wrote The Thin Man, his last novel, which inspired a successful film franchise starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick & Nora Charles. He contributed screen story treatments, or "scriptments" for two of the film adaptation's five sequels in the form of short novellas, but otherwise,  the remaining years of his life were spent coasting on his celebrity. He often recieved huge advances from publishers for exclusive publishing rights to future novels he would pitch (often he claimed he was working on a novel that sounded like a contemporary take on Swiss Family Robinson) and there is that strange fragment of a novel, Tulip, which was cobbled in with a collection of older short stories after his death, The Big Knockover.

In Unwritten, what we've got is a sequel to Falcon starring Hammet. Gordon McAlpine imagines Hammet's last case for Pinkerton's as "The Black Falcon Affair", imagines Hammet buying the "fake" falcon statuette at a police auction, then giving it away years later to Moira O'Shea, ( the "real" Brigid O'Shaunessey of Falcon ) to humor her outrageous tale that the bird is actually a powerful totem that brings good fortune to whoever owns it. As the novel spans the years after the handover, Hammet keeps having chance encounters with the other "real world" counterparts to his characters, including Joel Cairo and Kasper Gutman,  and an encounter with film director John Huston on the set of the classic film adaptation. His slow realization that this falcon might be the real thing leads to the finale, when he gets a chance to get it back.

The Maltese Falcon, in my opinion, is the greatest American Mystery novel ever written. I would also rank it as one of the top 5 greatest mystery/dective novels of all time. If you haven't read it, or only saw the film with Humphrey Bogart,  or encountered neither, I don't believe it's necessary to enjoy Hammet Unwritten without having done so. At it's heart, this book is about a man coping with his personal crisis of confidence.  Despite the fact that it's fiction, it's a consistent portrayal of the real Dashiell Hammet in his later years. McAlpine must have wanted to imagine a more cinematic biography for those final decades by making Hammet an artist ( and not just a troubled alcoholic ) and setting him on a quest.

What surprises did the book hold, if any?

There's an excellent biography of Dashiell Hammet by Diane Johnson called Dashiell Hammet, which I had read when I was in High School. Nothing in Hammet Unwritten happened to Dashiell Hammet,  but the man in this novel is the same man I read about in that biography years ago. In real life, his creative burnout was caused by a lifetime of drinking, a long-standing relationship of convenience (my opinion) with socialite/playwright Lillian Hellman, and lack of motivation for writing more. Plus, in retrospect...his life was half over by the time his last novel had been published.

It's also short, which is a nice surprise.  So many books these days tend to be written per quota or weight requirement and suffer for that. A good book does not need to weigh as much as a brick to be entertaining.

Which scenes will stay with you?

Quite a few - there's a scene where Hammet has a reunion with the counterpart to Sam Spade's secretary Effie and finds a dog-earred copy of The Maltese Falcon in her desk drawer. He decides to pencil in some new dialogue in her copy to express his feelings about her in contrast to how the character of Effie was portrayed in the story...and he can't get the words out, nothing comes to him. There's another scene where Hammet's writer's block has gotten so bad that he's begun hoarding typewriter ribbons in hopes that he'll need them, or upgrading to newer typewriters in hope that his output will improve. There's also a scene that suggests his reasons for re-enlisting in the army as a middle-aged man were to get away from the writing desk, even resorting to having his teeth removed after being initially rejected for having bad teeth.

Give us a good quote.

Sure - check out the gallery below.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Summer of Sherlock: "Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula" by Loren D. Estleman

Encapsulate the plot in one sentence?

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson investigate a bizarre series of crimes in London linked to the arrival of Count Dracula.

What year was this book published? Which edition is it?

The book was published in 1978, but this paperback reprint was published in 2012 by Titan Books under their series banner: The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

What's your verdict?

Very clever, but a very different book than if it were written and published today. The events take place in-between the events of Bram Stoker's original novel, Dracula, with Holmes' involvement only going so far without interrupting the events of that book. As a result, this novel becomes an apocryphal subplot, making Dracula one busy vampire. Characters like Mina Harker and Professor Van Helsing only appear in one-scene cameos, so the interaction between them is unfortunately expository - especially disappointing for fans of Mina in Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics - but the exchanges don't ring false.

Estleman once wrote that this book was almost adapted into a film starring Pierce Brosnan as Sherlock Holmes, which is kind of interesting. I could imagine Pierce delivering Holmes' dialogue as it's written here, though he would probably be subject to some bizarre hairdo like Roger Moore's in Sherlock Holmes In New York, due to Eon Productions guidelines that actors playing James Bond not look too Bond-like in other films that they appear in concurrently. As the book went on, however, I could only picture the late Jeremy Brett as Sherlock saying this stuff; that actor still  has the advantage of appearing in adaptations of the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that adhered close to the text; you don't get that from watching Basil Rathbone, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., or Johnny Lee Miller. Brett's portrayal got increasing loopy when he insisted on playing the role as his health declined, right down to when his speech became slurred and the production values overcompensated by adding a gothic tone to the proceedings...but it's all there.

As for the possible film adaptation, the climax makes this book Watson's story - not Sherlock. It's Watson's wife Mary who is kidnapped by the Count and Watson who has the stirring final words with Dracula by the end, which allows Holmes to stay in character and give Watson a chance to be more involved beyond that of sidekick/narrator. Loren D Estleman was/is one of the few writers of new Sherlock Holmes pastiches who found Watson just as interesting as Sherlock and essential to the series success. It makes sense that he would highlight that with his first Sherlock Holmes novel. Perhaps now  we could imagine a film like that produced today, whereas in the past, Brosnan would've been cast as Watson to reflect the weight of the role in this story or revised the whole thing by introducing Irene Adler as the damsel in distress. This tinkering happened with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen  film, when it became a vehicle for Sean Connery playing Alan Quartermain, when the focus of the comics was always Mina Murray.

Then there's Count Dracula. Estleman's approach is to cast the Count as a Sherlock Holmes villain.  The sequences featuring him parallel scenes from classic Sherlock Holmes stories: a spooky hound appearing in the fog (The Hound of the Baskervilles ), standoffs with villains in Holmes' study ( The Speckled Band, The Final Problem, Charles Augustus Milverton, The Mazarin Stone ), races against time to save a damsel in distress ( The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, The Copper Beeches,  The Illustrious Client ), a boat chase ( The Sign of Four ), searching for mundane objects holding valuable things ( The Blue Carbuncle, The Six Napoleons, The Disappearance of  Lady Frances Carfax, The Norwood Builder ) and an ending to a wild goose chase that relies on Holmes assuring us of a likely happy ending happening offstage ( Wisteria Lodge ). Within this context, Count Dracula is in good company with Count Silvius, Milverton, Moriarty and the rest, but then Estleman throws a surprise bit of depth to the Count's last scene in this book by adding an interesting dialogue with Watson - without turning him into Barnabas Collins. Dracula's powers were never too clear; Estleman hints that his appetite for blood may be linked to how much he exerts himself, so he is never omnipotent...I couldn't picture Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee as the Count in this one, or Gary Oldman's one-man-monster-mash Dracula...maybe Anthony Hopkins. And David Burke as Watson, though Martin Freeman or Jude Law would do okay.

What surprises did this book hold, if any?

It's short! Seriously, it's about the same length as any of the four Sherlock Holmes novels written by Doyle. It is ironic that aside from Barrie Roberts or Nicholas Meyer, most of the pastiche novels tend be over 250-300 pages...or more! In what way is that an improvement on the master?

Another surprise is that it's not...comic book, action figure spectacle. The stakes are raised in a convincing way and everyone is in fine form. You could argue about whether or not Watson's dignity was compromised by having his wife kidnapped, but that is not an impossible consequence when dealing with Dracula, who tends to like wife-stealing. At least Estleman didn't bring Irene Adler into this - that character becomes less interesting whenever she appears in new stories. That "relationship" with Sherlock never happened...nor did Nero Wolfe become the product of their one-night-stand in Montenegro. If Holmes saw any action in the bedroom in the canon, it was likely with the maid he became engaged to in "Charles Augustus Milverton" when he was disguised as a plumber in Milverton's house.

I'm somewhat surprised "The Adventure of The Sussex Vampire" isn't given more than just a nod in the opening. That story is best-known as the source for the "No ghosts need apply" quote, but it is unusual in that it features a cruel prank pulled by a disturbed boy on a baby. It was adapted into a two hour episode of the Jeremy Brett series as "The Vampyre of The Village" and delved deeper into why the boy might've done that. It wasn't very good and neither was the story, but I guess that's why Estleman chose to just take the quote and ignore the rest. Few people who love Holmes' remark about the impossible and improbable even remember that it was taken from The Sign of Four!

Have you read other works by this author?

I'm about to read Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes, Estleman's follow-up novel, which he thought was superior to Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula,  so this should be interesting.  As per the rules I set up for this "Summer of Sherlock" reading challenge,  I'll offer a review next month, giving you, the readers, time to read it for yourselves if you'd like. 

Give us a good quote.

Sure. Check out the gallery below.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Magrs Method of Book Reporting: "Sharks Never Sleep" by William F. Nolan

Encapsulate the plot in one sentence?

Erle Stanley Garner, the creator of Perry Mason, is framed with the double murder of a Hollywood power couple, and his friends Raymond Chandler & Dashiell Hammet help him clear his name and find out the truth.

What's your verdict?

This mystery was the last entry in the Black Mask Boys trilogy, in which the author had three legendary mystery writers team up to solve mysteries, like the old Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators books, with Chandler's luxury car standing in for Hitchcock's Rolls Royce. The conceit is that each novel was narrated in the first person by one of the trio, solving a mystery containing elements reminiscent of each authors respective works. Neither of them were friends in real life and are not known to have even met in person or shared correspondence, but Nolan's copious biograghical research into the lives of these men indicates that they were living and working in California at the same time and had interacted with Hollywood motion picture studios: Hammet was ghost writing as a script doctor and contributing storylines for sequels to The Thin Man while indulging in the beginnings of his long, unconventional relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman; Chandler was a struggling writer cranking out short stories for pulp magazines while enjoying a stable married life with his wife Cissy; Garner was gaining popularity with the success of Perry Mason, but was displeased with quickly-produced, low-budget film adaptations of the novels.

Nolan's greatest strength is that he convinces you that these guys actually could have been friends and gotten along very well. It's the main draw of the books and a lot of fun imagining Garner visit Hammet on the set of a Tarzan movie (Tarzan and Zorro movies were the equivalent of superhero movies back then)
and the two going on a road trip with a zany racecar driver into Mexico to pursue a lead that becomes a divergent episode within the book. Or Garner granted bail by a judge who turns out to be an old crony of Chandler's. The real highlight of the book is the trial, in which the creator of the most famous lawyer in pop culture history has to defend himself in a preliminary hearing in the courthouse.

There are weird hiccups in the plot: why did Garner need to wait for Hammet to deliver key evidence at the last possible moment when he could've had Hammet present it with the aid of another attorney while Garner was sitting in a holding cell? Why was Garner prime suspect in the first murder when he clearly had a strong alibi? Why wasn't Mae West and Gloria Swanson sworn in as witnesses for the defense? Why didn't Garner forfeit his claim to the victim's estate when he knew that the last-minute changes to the will planted suspicion on him? 

These plot holes didn't get in the way because this mystery wasn't too interesting - it actually does involve some dark subject matter, like the death of a toddler and the character of the murderer once he's revealed, but because this is Garner's perspective,  it skates lightly over it, in the same manner that the Perry Mason novels do it. His books were chases; solving puzzles, chasing leads, chasing suspects, discovering a solution and presenting it before a judge in courtroom. They were not what we think of as legal thrillers - they were classic detective puzzles with a brilliant amateur sleuth who happened to be an attorney; the Perry Mason novels rarely featured a criminal trial by jury and often ended with the preliminary hearing, in which a judge decides if there is enough evidence in the prosecution's case against the defendant to proceed with a trial. This was Garner's original twist to what had become a staple in detective fiction: the gathering of the suspects and the unveiling of the solution.

One of the hazards of "light" detective novels, or "Cozy Mysteries", as they're called, is the nature of the crime involved. A particularly violent crime can sour the mood, which is why there is rarely any bloodshed, mostly poisonings. Stabbings, hangings and shootings often occur offstage,  though weapons are present, often described at length. Poisonings, like the one featured here, involve detailed descriptions of deadly toxins; very rarely will you find a cozy that dwells on ballistic evidence. 

This was a rather long way of saying that I enjoyed the book, though the parts are greater than the whole. It wasn't a bad way to end the trilogy.

What surprises did this book hold, if any?

Chandler takes a backseat somewhat, Garner only shines during the courtroom scenes in the final act, Hammet takes decisive action, but it's not his story. I did enjoy the psuedo-biographical yet in-character stuff Nolan invented, like Hammet rewriting scripts for Charlie Chan and Tarzan movies,  or Garner in a sauna with Mae West & Gloria Swanson, or glimpses of Chandler's fussy particularity with houses he moved in and out of, or which gas stations he preferred driving to.

Hammet is, to this day, the only one amongst the three who has and continues to be fictionalized in stories by other writers (Hammet by Joe Gores & Hammet Unwritten by Owen Fitzgerald are good examples ), largely because he was a private investigator in real life for a time. As a young man, Garner was an attorney in real life, but writing was his true calling and he was the most prolific,  if not the most acclaimed of the three. Chandler was a ne'er-do-well of sorts who married a wealthy older woman and became celebrated for his singular creation, private eye Phillip Marlowe, and his use of language and metaphor,  but not his plotting.

The best moments in the book are when these three are brought together, but the real character is Barney Oldfield, retired racer and sub for Chandler when the latter declines to join the writers in their initial trip to Mexico.  You could tell Nolan was wishing Oldfield was famous enough to spin-off into his own series.

Are there other works by the same author?

Nolan co-wrote the sci-fi novel Logan's Run and penned two sequel novels. He also wrote two sci-fi spoofs of Hammet's Sam Spade character with a detective named Sam Space. As for The Black Mask Boys trilogy, I have the other two volumes - The Black Mask Murders & The Marble Orchard - read the first one years ago, just recently got Orchard and will review after I get a chance to read it sometime.

Incidentally,  the title of this trilogy of mysteries was inspired by the title of the pulp magazine that often featured stories written by all three authors in their salad days: Black Mask

Can you give us a good quote?

Sure. Check out the gallery below.

Until next time! :)

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Apocryphal Scrooge McDuck, Part 2

As you can tell by the gap between installments, Scrooge McDuck's career as a character in children's books is pretty slight. Adaptations of Mickey's Christmas Carol notwithstanding, the bulk of his appearances beyond Scrooge and The Magic Fish are a series of cameos in various stories featuring the Disney stock company. He appears in two of the three books I'm covering in this post.

Mickey Mouse and The Marvelous Smell Machine was printed in 1979 and reprinted as Mickey Mouse Scratch and Sniff Book in 1990. The author and illustrator are uncredited. The plot, in one sentence,  involves Gyro Gearloose's latest invention: a deodorizing/air freshening "smell machine" that he gives to Mickey Mouse without telling him how to turn it off, so the machine creates havoc by generating random odors that cannot be controlled. Complicating matters is Goofy, who, thinking the device was intended as a donation to an antique fair, sells it to Scrooge, who apparently wasn't bothered by the clouds of pepper scent created by the machine but is highly perturbed when it spreads smoke fumes on the cash in his money bin and firefighters soak the greenbacks in water by mistake.

The drawback to "Scratch and Sniff" books is that there's clearly a limited palette to the fragrance labels available: lavender, clover, black pepper, smoke, mothballs and candied apple to name a few. I also recall popcorn, strawberries and honey fragrances,  but as the years go by...only smoke and pepper last the longest. None of these odors are particularly foul - in fact, the only time I recall an attempt at "air fouling" was the "Air Fouler" packed with the first issue of the Ren and Stimpy comic book. Anyway, these are classic Disney characters and they're supposed to be above that sort of funky thing, so this is moot.

For me, the real highlight of the book wasn't really the scratching and sniffing, but the detailed pen & ink artwork. The story is set in motion by "Gay Nineties Day" (I kid you not) an event within the unspecified town (it's implied that this story is set within Main Street at Disneyland or Walt Disney World and that Main Street is a town itself) where everyone is dressed in the style of the "Nifty" 1890s.  So the book has the illusion of being a period piece,  allowing the artist to draw Mickey and the gang in elaborate garb and not their standard outfits. I think the same artist worked on The Haunted House, a book where Mickey,  Donald and Pluto explore a deserted old house inhabited by a bank robber disguised as a ghost. Both were published around the same time.

Scrooge is not a bit player in Donald's Attic Adventure, but as with the last book, he does seem to have limits as a character in this sort of thing. He's a fully-realized, complete character;  you could do a story where he teaches kids about money, as they did in the cartoon, Scrooge McDuck and Money, or a story where he explores a cave and teaches you about precious stones and metals (they never did, to my knowledge)...but how would he fit in a story about his nephew searching the attic for stuff to sell at a yard sale? The author, Cindy West, answers that question by presenting Scrooge as a yard sale expert of sorts, not really helping Donald get rid of anything, but taking a fancy to a garish, oversize robe (who could that have possibly belonged to?), watching a parrot escape from being neglected in a cage in the attic (if the coloring of the plumage had been all green, he could've been the 'Pixelated Parrot' from Carl Barks' story) and join in on the street parade wearing (I'll hazard a guess) Goofy's nightrobe. Since this was published in 1990, he's in his Ducktales coat, too, which is actually a refreshing improvement over the bizarre color patterns attributed to his coat over the years. I always preferred this blue-with-red-collar frock coat over the Santa Claus red one with the grey collar, which has become uniform in the comics (when he appears in the Disney parks, it's in his blue coat as well). I guess Daisy Duck is wearing her Totally Minnie outfit - people forget the early-1990s still had some outrageous fashions hungover from the late-1980s,  as witnessed by TV shows like Saved By The Bell , Full House and Step By Step.

I included Huey, Dewey and Louie's Campfire Surprise because it was the first children's book I'd ever seen that was clearly illustrated with a computer. I thought it had a 3-D look to it when I first read it, but it's actually the use of computer coloring and shading, as well as the clock display and the font of the numbers showing the almost resembled animation cels.

I have a BIG  book (literally and figuratively) waiting in the wings for the next installment. It's so big...I'll need to set up a stand to take pictures of it's cover and the pages!

To be continued....and enjoy the gallery!