Sunday, October 15, 2017

Writers Born Today - S. S. Van Dine

It's the birthday of Willard Huntington Wright, born October 15, 1888 in Charlottesville, Virginia. He wrote under the pen name S.S. Van Dine, in part because he was too embarrassed to admit to his high brow friends that he had stooped to writing "detective fiction". He created the dapper amateur detective Philo Vance, who was an immediate hit, both in print and on the silver screen, portrayed by such actors as William Powell and Basil Rathbone. Few people living today have ever read one of Van Dine's novels or even heard of him. Yet for a brief period of a dozen years, be was one of the most widely read authors on the planet.

Wright began his career as a critic, first for the Los Angeles Times and later for Smart Set, a jazz age magazine owned by the great writer H. L. Mencken, one of Wright's literary influences. Although Wright was known for his scathing reviews of romance and detective fiction, he never achieved the fame he felt he deserved, and after a series of personal and business setbacks, he was ordered complete bed rest by his doctors to deal with his drug abuse.

Bored, he began reading detective novels by the dozen, and to his surprise, found some of them quite entertaining. He decided to try his hand at a couple, but aware of his own reputation for slandering the mystery genre, came up with the pen name S.S. Van Dine to disguise his authorship. He created Philo Vance, a protagonist modeled after himself, or at least, how Wright saw himself...educated, cultured, wealthy, and an expert on any number of subjects, a man to admire with his fancy clothes and monocle. He was the perfect detective for the jazz age, a model for the boom years when it seemed everyone was destined to become wealthy and wise. First with The Benson Murder Case and the blockbuster The Canary Murder Case, Van Dine's writing formula was a hit. By the time the third Philo Vance novel was published, Wright was as rich as his main character. So popular were his books that they helped keep his publisher from going out of business during the Depression.

Wright even penned a guide for other writers with an essay he published called Twenty Rules For Writing Detective Stories. It holds up well and still has some good advice. Van Dine influenced many other writers of the mystery genre, perhaps the most famous being the writers who created Ellery Queen.

Van Dine's novels and trademark character lost popularity as the Jazz Age and the Roaring 20s gave way to the deepening Great Depression. By the mid 1930s his wealthy protagonist began to appear dated and out of place. New writers, such as Dashiell Hammett and James Cain emerged with a gritty, realistic style that caught the public's eye. By the time the last Philo Vance novel, The Winter Murder Case was published in 1939, Van Dine's literary shooting star had burnt out. And not just his career was over. He died on April 11 of that same year from heavy drinking and heart disease.

"There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse, the better."

                                                                   - S.S. Van Dine

Friday, October 6, 2017

MYSTERY HISTORY - FIRST TRAIN ROBBERY

On October 6, 1866, the Reno Gang pulled the first moving train robbery in U.S. history near Seymour, Indiana. The four brothers made off with 10,000 dollars in gold and currency, worth over
166,000 dollars in today's money. It was a daring and inspired crime that set off a wave of copycats. 


For a while, it became the most profitable method of robbery in the Wild West. The transcontinental railroad had just been completed, uniting the country. Large sums of cash were being hauled around by rail to stock banks and mines with payroll money in the fast growing western territories. But the area was still sparsely populated. Robbers had plenty of isolated spots in which to ambush trains, and organizing a posse to chase the thieves was nearly impossible. Rugged landscapes provided countless hiding places.  Even the infamous crime duo Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid got in on what seemed to be easy pickings.

But it was not to last. Train owners didn't like being robbed (imagine that). They began to protect their cargo with larger safes, armored boxcars and armed guards. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was hired to chase down the gangs, sometimes with men on horseback leaping from special train cars. By the late 1880s, the good times were over.

It ended a lot sooner for the Reno Gang. Three of the brothers were arrested after a train robbery in 1868 in which a guard was beaten to death. An enraged mob of vigilantes stormed the jail where they were being held and hung them.



Friday, September 29, 2017

MYSTERY HISTORY - LIZABETH SCOTT

It's the birthday of Lizabeth Scott, born September 29, 1922 in Scranton, Pennsylvania to poor immigrant parents. Her  distinctive voice and seductive looks would make her a leading star of film noir in the 1940s and 50s.

She got her acting start at Marywood Seminary and Scranton Central High School performing in numerous school plays. Her mother wanted her to become a journalist, but Lizbeth threatened to enter a convent if she couldn't pursue her acting career.

After moving to New York, she won roles in vaudeville and Broadway shows but had trouble breaking into film. At one point she failed screen tests at Warner Brothers, International Pictures and Universal. One studio head said of her, "She'll never be a star, only a second leading lady." But others saw her potential. She got her first break starring in You Came Along opposite Robert Cummings. Other films followed.

Her third film, Dead Reckoning, helped establish her reputation as a femme fatale when she was paired with Humphrey Bogart in one of her finest roles.  Bogart played Rip Murdock who investigates the mysterious murder of his war buddy, Johnny. Scott played Johnny's wife, Coral . Mixed up in the story are a night club run by a gangster, an attempt to frame Rip for murder, assorted violence and questionable motives by Coral, who has plenty to hide.

Scott continued to receive roles in mostly noir films where her smoky voice and sultry appearance were a great asset. Many of Hollywood's leading men appeared with her: Burt Lancaster in Desert Fury and I Walk Alone, Charlton Heston in Dark City and Bad For Each Other, Dick Powell in Pitfall, Robert Mitchum in The Racket.

Her movie career was damaged by a tabloid article in 1955 with accusations that she was a lesbian. In the ensuing trial, she failed to win any damages against the publisher. But she continued to appear in television roles and a few films, including Pulp, one of her last roles, with Michael Caine and Mickey Rooney in 1972.

In 1957 she tried to recreate herself as a singer and even released an album of torch and romantic ballads through RCA Victor. But it was her only release.

“What you call film noir I call psychological drama. It showed all these facets of human experience and conflict - that these women could be involved with their heart and yet could think with their minds.”

- Lizabeth Scott




Friday, September 22, 2017

Writers Born Today - Gail Bowen

It's the birthday of playwright and mystery novelist Gail Bowen, born September 22, 1942 in Toronto. She developed an early interest in death in part because she learned to read by perusing the tombstones in Prospect Cemetery (really...you can't make this stuff up).

Fortunately, she turned this curiosity into a literary career, rather than become a serial killer. Her readers are very grateful. And the books are quite good, which is just icing on the cake.

Although she grew up in Toronto, her best selling mystery novels are set in Saskatchewan, in the west of Canada. Her protagonist is Joanne Kilbourn, a college professor and widow. Raising three teenagers would be enough to drive her (or anyone) to murder, but instead, she solves them. In 1995 she won the Arthur Ellis Award for A Colder Kind of Death, in which Joanne is a suspect. In 2009, she won the Derrick Murdoch Award for her contributions to the crime genre.

Her novels have been praised for tackling some weighty social issues, including racism and child prostitution, and also for her descriptions of the Canadian prairie. Several of the Kilbourn books have been filmed for television movies. Her latest in the series, The Winner's Circle, was released in August of this year.

“Joanne is really someone who, when she sees injustice or inequity, rolls up her sleeves and tries to do what she can to right what she perceives as wrong. I see that as a very Canadian attitude.”

                    - Gail Bowen 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Mystery History - Otto Penzler Born Today

It's the birthday of Otto Penzler, born July 8, 1942. A crime fiction editor, publisher, and the founder of  The Mysterious Press, Penzler has done more to promote the mystery genre than any other individual over the past 50 years. He is one of the world's leading experts of mystery and suspense fiction. The list of writers he has worked with reads like a Who's Who from the Best-Sellers list, and include Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Higgins Clark, Michael Connelly and Sue Grafton (just to name a few). His accomplishments and their importance can hardly be exaggerated, but we will try.

Penzler studied English Literature in college, reading heavyweights like James Joyce. After graduation he started writing columns about sports. One of his first jobs paid the princely sum of thirty-seven dollars a week. He set aside five dollars of that to buy books. He loved to read, but he was through with Dickens and Melville. “I wanted to keep reading, but I didn’t want to hurt my head anymore. So I thought mysteries, I’ll read some mysteries.” He started with the early classics, such as The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. It was when he started reading Chandler and Hammett that he was struck by the revelation that mystery stories were not all sub-par, but could be real works of art.

He growing knowledge of the genre led to his co-authorship of the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, a detailed catalog of mystery authors, books and films. It won an Edgar Award in 1977.

In 1979 he opened The Mysterious Bookshop, now the oldest and largest bookstore devoted to mystery, suspense and thrillers. His bookstore office is marked by crime scene tape.

He edits the annual edition of The Best American Mystery Stories. During his career he has edited dozens of anthologies, including my favorite, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries.

His most important contribution was the founding of The Mysterious Press, a publisher of mystery and crime fiction. With it, he's published most of the best writers of mystery, thriller, and spy stories. Determined to not only publish the best writers in the genre, he wanted to put out quality books by using acid-free paper, ensuring that the books would last a long time. It was not for nothing that mystery novels were called pulps for so many years. They were often printed using the cheapest paper and could literally fall apart after just a few readings. Penzler challenged that reputation by treating his product as a quality work of literary art. He succeeded on both counts with quality authors and a quality book.

With the advent of electronic publishing, Penzler has jumped in with both feet (perhaps dipping in a toe first). Mysterious Press is working with publishers to bring the works of established writers like Donald Westlake, James Ellroy, and Christianna Brand to ebooks and audio release.

Penzler has won three Edgar Awards for Best Critical/Biographical Work from the Mystery Writers of America. He also won that organizations's Ellery Queen Award in 1994 and the Raven Award in 2003 for outstanding achievement in the mystery field.

At this moment he is probably working on another anthology that will delight us later this year, or next. Hopefully, he'll take some time to blow out the candles and have a slice of cake.

References -

Atlas Obscura
Fine Books Magazine
LA Review of Books
Los Angeles Times
Mysterious Press
Mystery Writers of America
New York Times

Friday, June 23, 2017

In The Dismal Swamp. Was It An Accident...Or Was It Murder?

Thomas and Mercer, has announced that my mystery novel, In The Dismal Swamp, is being promoted via their Select Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Kindle books for $0.99 each!  Don't miss this chance to read it. Sale runs through June 30th.


Believable dialogue, an engaging hero, and lots of Virginia backcountry ambience suggest a strong series in the offing from this talented first novelist. -- Booklist

Friday, June 16, 2017

Writers Born Today - Alexandra Marinina

It's the birthday of Russian crime novelist Alexandra Marinina, born June 16, 1957 in Ukraine. Hers was a family of lawyers and she followed in those footsteps, earning her law degree in 1979. Her first novel, Confluence of Circumstances, was published in 1993. She studied criminal behavior in the Ministry of Internal Affairs as a police officer until 1998, when she turned to writing full time.

Most of her detective novels are considered cozies written in the traditional European method of the crime as a logical puzzle to be solved by intellect rather than brute force or physical prowess. Her protagonist is a female detective named Anastasia Kamenskaia. In describing her heroine, the author has compared her a "computer with two legs", and a "gray mouse" unconcerned with makeup or appearance. He only passion is to solve crimes. Coffee and cigarettes are her constant fuel, and some of her colleagues describe her in unflattering terms. "She just sits in her warm office sipping coffee and pretends she's the great Nero Wolfe!". But she is extremely skilled at her work.


Alexandra began to write in 1991 out of boredom. Her knowledge of criminal behavior found an outlet that was far more interesting than the official reports she produced for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The editors at Militsia, a magazine produced by the Ministry, published one of her first stories and encouraged her writing.

Called the "Russian Agatha Christie", she has won several awards and was named Writer of the Year in 1998 by the Moscow International Book Fair. Her books have sold more than 45 million copies and have been translated into 20 languages. Sadly, there are almost no English translations of her detective novels.


References -

https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/IFR/article/view/7802/8859

https://www.lecourrierderussie.com/culture/2016/06/alexandra-marinina-crime/