Monday, April 27, 2015

The Verdict Is In - The Case Of The Purloined Painting Is Guilty As Charged

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury have you reached a verdict?

We have, Your Honor.

In the case of Carl Brookins vs the Reading Public, charged with writing a highly entertaining PI novel with malice aforethought on providing historical accuracy without boring the reader, how do you find? Is the defendant Guilty or Not Guilty?

Guilty, Your Honor.

There you have it. The Case of the Purloined Painting is not only entertaining, but (gasp) educational as well. As an added footnote, the novel, which is one of a series featuring the private detective Sean Sean, stands on its own feet without requiring prior knowledge of the character by the reader. However, this charge was dropped in the interest of expediency.

This is my first encounter with Sean Sean (the PI so nice they named him twice). He doesn't fit the typical stereotype of a Private Eye, and that alone is refreshing. He hails not from sunny Florida or the gritty streets of New York, but Minneapolis, Minnesota. It seems that citizens of the upper Midwest from good Norweigan stock have the same foibles as the rest of us...they commit crimes. That's where Sean steps in - all 5 1/2 feet of him (another break with tradition).

A mysterious woman comes to him and claims to have seen a man tossed from a bridge after being accosted by two men. For reasons she won't explain, she is reluctant go to the police and hires Sean to investigate. When a dead body with the name of Manfred Gottlieb does turn up, Sean starts following the trail of clues. They lead to a painting which may have been looted by an American G.I after World War II, a painting that was used to build a huge fortune for a powerful Minnesota family. And as Sean begins to peel back the layers, lots of folks take a sudden interest in art history. The head of a local law firm, the police, and even the Justice Department pay Sean a visit. But they're mere annoyances compared to the shadowy figure that's trying to kill him.

The painting may not even be the grand prize. Sean begins to uncover pages from a ledger written in German that catalogue more pieces of artwork, much of which now rests in museums around the world. Is this a wish list for an art collector, or a crime list of Nazi plunder?

Either way, it may be the list that led to Gottlieb's murder, and the killer has no qualms about adding to the body count. It's up to Sean to keep that to a minimum while trying to solve the crime. How he manages that task provides the reader with a page turning story and along the way proves that art, and art crime, can haunt us long after the artist's paintbrush is put away.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Writers Born Today - Rex Miller

It's the birthday of Rex Miller, born April 25, 1939 in Sikeston, Missouri. He was a popular DJ in Chicago in the 1960s before he started writing novels. Harlan Ellison encouraged him to turn his skills to the typewriter.

His family history included several violent deaths, including an uncle who was murdered by the Nazis and another who died under mysterious circumstances in Switzerland while working as a delegate for the League of Nations.

Rex Miller had this to say about his writing: "I'm writing for realism, the power edge, a kind of dual catharsis I suppose. If I could pass one message along through my work, it's this: those repeat-offenders who victimize the helpless are neither 'sick,' 'troubled,' 'disturbed,' nor 'dysfunctional' They're evil."

Most of his novels featured Chicago detective Jack Eichord who tracks a 450 pound serial killer named Daniel Bunkowski. Bunkowski, also know as Chaingang, is an ex-government assassin who continues to kill once he returns from Vietnam, simply for the thrill of it.

The first novel in the series, Slob, was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award in 1987.

Stephen King described Miller's writing as "terrifying and original". Miller's fiction was a cross between traditional crime and horror. He was popular during the early period that came to be known as splatterpunk, a fiction sub-genre that is experiencing a renaissance with writers such as Christine Morgan and  J. Michael Major.

"You have to have the self-confidence of a rhinoceros to write...", he once said in an interview for the St. Joseph News-Press. "You spend a lot of time alone. You've got to really want to do this."

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Mystery History - Odd Man Out

It was on this day in 1947 that Odd Man Out was released in the United States. Set in Northern Ireland, it's the story of an armed robbery that goes wrong when the gang's leader is wounded and left behind by his fleeing compatriots in the IRA. James Mason portrays Johnny McQueen as the wounded gunman who kills a cashier during the robbery and must flee into the back streets of Belfast while the police throw a dragnet around the city.

The lead role was offered first to Stewart Granger, a very popular British actor at the time, but he turned it down. Mason got the part and gave one of the best performances of his career.

Carol Reed directed the film, and did a brilliant job as he used the dark street settings to enhance the sense of claustrophobia that surrounds Johnny McQueen as he scurries through the streets seeking someone...anyone, who can help him. But each person he encounters is a person who can also betray him. We see the other members of his gang meet this fate when they trust the wrong people. The only person Johnny can really trust is Kathleen Sullivan (played by Kathleen Ryan). But she has no idea where Johnny is hiding, and must venture into the streets to join the search and hope to find him before the police do.

The movie won the BAFTA award for Best British Film in 1949. The New York Times called it "a picture to see, to absorb in the darkness of the theatre and then go home and talk about." James Mason said it was one of his favorite movie roles.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Mystery History - The Murders In The Rue Morgue is published

It was on this day in 1841 that The Murders in the Rue Morgue was published by Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine in Philadelphia. Edgar Allan Poe's tale about a series of mysterious and graphic murders is acknowledged as the first modern detective story. The word "detective" hadn't even been invented yet, through it would appear within a year.

It was originally entitled Murders in the Rue Trianon but Poe renamed it for shock effect. Many of the techniques used in the story later became standard fare in the mystery novel. The Sherlock Holmes character owes much to Poe's story, such as employing the detective's assistant as a narrator and the use of logical deduction to solve the crime. Poe published the story again in his 1845 collection, Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

The story has been redone numerous times on the stage, radio, in the movies, and even as a board game.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Final Chapter - Charlene Weir, Kansas born Mystery Writer

Mystery writer Charlene Weir passed away on April 4th, 2015 in El Cerrito, California. She was born in Nortonville, Kansas, a small town of 400 about 36 miles from Topeka. She was a voracious reader,
according to her online biography, and carried library books home by the armful. He mother was always after her to "put down that book and go outside, get some sunshine and exercise".

Writing wasn't her first choice as a career. She really wanted to be a nurse. After graduating high school she got her nursing degree and moved to California. But health problems nagged her...tiredness, numbness in her limbs, vision problems. One doctor, unable to diagnose her symptoms, suggested she see a shrink. Finally, a doctor in Stanford diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis. It was the end of her nursing career. But she still had her children, and her puzzles, and her love of reading.

Writing still didn't enter her mind, until her husband suggested she try writing a novel after an off the cuff remark about a book she'd just finished. "He pushed me into a life of crime" Weir said. 

She started writing a series about a San Francisco detective who moves to a small Kansas town to wed the police chief. After he is gunned down, Susan Wren vows to hunt down the killer. This first novel, The Winter Widow, won the Malice Domestic Award for Best First Traditional Mystery in 1992.  Her second, Consider The Crows, was nominated for an Anthony Award in 1994.

Five more books in the series followed. They won critical acclaim from reviewers as well as readers. She was never afraid of her illness. There were other things to fear.

"There is nothing scarier than a blank computer screen".

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Writers Born Today - Tom Clancy

It's the birthday of Tom Clancy, born April 12, 1947 in Baltimore Maryland. Early in his life he took a deep interest in reading and military history, a combination that would serve him well as a writer.

But after graduating from college, he went into the insurance business, his dream of being an author postponed. His poor eyesight also kept him from pursuing an active career in the military. But it didn't stop him from devouring military news, journals and magazines.

In 1980 he purchased his own insurance agency, and began to write at night in his spare time. His first novel, The Hunt For Red October, was published by a small press that specialized in military non-fiction. They almost didn't buy it, but an editor, Deborah Grosvenor, pushed hard for its acquisition. The novel came out in 1984. The story of a high tech Soviet submarine whose crew defects to the United States was about to make publishing history.

Clancy hoped it would sell a few thousand copies so he could earn his meager advance. One of those copies found in way into the hands of the President of the United States, and after he praised it, sales soared into the millions. Suddenly, the insurance agent with thick eyeglasses was an international best-selling author.

The book was packed with so many technical details and tactics on submarine warfare that many people in the military suspected that Clancy may have used Top Secret or classified information. The Secretary of the Navy John Lehman wanted to know who had cleared its publication. But all the research had been conducted using public sources.

More best-selling novels followed, and Mr. Clancy became the premiere novelist of Cold War thrillers. His second, Red Storm Rising, was required reading at the Naval War College. Some of the technology from his novels, which didn't exist at the time of publication, has since been found on the battlefield, which led one military historian to compare him to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Although he sold over 100 million copies of his novels, Clancy insisted that the writing never came easy. "A lot of people think something mystical happens to you, that maybe the muse kisses you on the ear. But writing isn’t divinely inspired — it’s hard work."

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Mystery History - The Dark Corner Released Today in 1946

It was on this day in 1946 that The Dark Corner was released in theaters. This under-rated noir film tells the story of an ex-con turned PI named Bradford Galt. He discovers that he's being followed by a man who claims to work for his old double crossing partner Tony Jardine.  But it's a trick. Jardine is actually the target for a murder by an art gallery owner, who simply wants to pin the murder on Galt, whose history with Jardine will make him a natural suspect. When Galt is found next to the dead Jardine, a fireplace poker in his hand, his secretary Kathleen hides him.

The movie featured several big names, including William Bendix, Clifton Webb and Lucille Ball as Galt's faithful secretary.

Most people are unaware that the woman who graced television screens in the 50s and 60s as America's Sweetheart appeared in several noir films in the 1940s. Lucille Ball gives a good performance as the loyal secretary who tries to uncover the murderer and protect Galt from a frame job. Her snappy dialogue and admiration for her employer capture the audience from the opening scene. When she's on the screen, you want to jump in and join her on the dance floor or take her for a cup of coffee. No wonder we all fell in love with her.

Dark drama just wasn't Ms Ball's forte (at least according to the studio heads). It would take a match with a Cuban musician named Desi Arnaz to place her at the top of television comedy for more than a decade. But she's a delight to watch in this movie.

Much of the film's visual appeal is due to the skillful directing of Henry Hathaway, and cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, who uses bright light mixed with shadow to set the dark mood.

Clifton Webb gives a strong performance as the art dealer who works behinds the scenes to manipulate the players. William Bendix as a shady tail holds up well. The movie got good reviews, with the New York Times calling it a "sizzling piece of melodrama."

Lucille Ball would go on to make a few more movies, including another noir, Lured, before her career would make TV history in I Love Lucy.

Lucille Ball: "Mr Galt, I think someone is following us...I've never been followed before."
Mark Stevens: "That's a terrible reflection on American manhood."