Archive for Margery Allingham

The Writer’s Block, Lawrence Block

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2023 by dcairns

For ages now I’ve been working my way through Margery Allingham’s Campion novels, alternating them with Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series, but now, just as I’m nearing the end of the Campions and getting up to date with the Laundry Files (Stross being happily alive and still banging them out — I had the pleasure of meeting him recently), I’ve discovered Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series — the Burglar books.

(A blurb has described the Laundry Files as being like Len Deighton spy thrillers in the style of H.P. Lovecraft, which is close to accurate if you flip it around. Stross doesn’t much go in for gloomy Howard’s high-flown cosmic thesaurus-raiding, he’s more dry and sardonic, so the feel is more like a downbeat spy series that just happens to feature demons and elder gods. Harry Palmer Lovecraft, if you will.)

After the All You Can Eat Bookstore sadly closed — that business model was perhaps foredoomed — I was cheered by the appearance of the Edinburgh Community Bookstore just across the road from me. Not only is it a convenient and often economical source of reading material, it makes me feel I’m in Brooklyn. (When I stayed with a friend in the Red Hook area [as immortalized by Lovecraft in The Horror of Red Hook], The Community Bookstore was a valuable nearby resource.) A crime fiction bargain bin recently appeared outside TCB, and three of Block’s Burglar books flashed their spines at me.

But I only bought them because I’d picked up Telling Lies for Fun and Proft, a book by Block on the craft of writing (basically a collection of magazine articles) and I enjoyed his voice. My previous experience of him was reading a Cornell Woolrich book that he’d finished, and I didn’t care for what he did with it. I can’t think he could have been very satisfied with it.

But the Burglar books are great fun. I knew Block was a friend of the late Donald Westlake, and these are a similar kind of fun.

But here’s a little mystery. In the first book, the magnificently titled Burglars Can’t Be Choosers (and how could I, of all people, be expected to pass that one up?), a plot thread hangs upon a character who’s a minor movie actor. Block invents a plausible credit for the guy, MAN IN THE MIDDLE starring James Garner and Shan Wilson. It sounds convincing because there are a number of movies with that title, it’s never attached itself to anything really successful enough for it to become intellectual property. James Garner was never in a film of that name (though another Philip Marlowe, Robert Mitchum, was). I was curious about the name Shan Wilson though: there isn’t a movie star of that name, not even an obscure one.

Bernie Rhodenbarr didn’t have the benefit of the IMDb, since his first appearance in a novel came out in 1977. I can access it, though the site seems to be deteriorating before our eyes these days, like a staked vampire. Shan Wilson does exist, it seems, but had not been in a film at the time Block was writing. He has two credits, nineteen years apart. One is WINDING ROADS, where he or she is credited as “couple in park” — which seems unlikely on the face of it. One Molly Wilson is similarly credited — obviously each should be considered one half of couple in park. Since Shan and Molly likely are a real couple, sharing as they do a surname, investigating Molly might be useful, but she has no other credits.

I haven’t seen this movie. It was shot in Missouri. It seems quite possible that the Shan Wilson here is an entirely different person than the guy with the other credit, a mere IMDb Frankenstein job (for a while on the website, major director Michael Powell had a sound assisting credit on a short film made a decade after his death).

Shan’s other credit is as “spy in Oktoberfest” in HOPSCOTCH. Nice film. Not sure how it came to be released by Criterion. But it’s very enjoyable. Now, one aspect of HOPSCOTCH that’s been noted is that screenwriter Brian Garfield, a crime novelist himself, studded the dramatis personae with names that wink at his writer pals: so there’s a “Ludlum” and a “Follett,” for instance, “Parker Westlake,” a fairly blatant nod (or wink) to Donald Westlake, author of the Parker books (written under the pseudonym of Richard Stark). Westlake also scripted THE STEPFATHER from Garfield’s story idea.

So the name Shan Wilson, apart from appearing in his book, SEEMS indirectly connected to Block via Garfield and Westlake.

OK, I’ve gotten as far as I can with paperback and laptop. Now to get out my DVD of HOPSCOTCH and see if Shan Wilson looks like anybody… anybody like Block, Westlake or Garfield. If the scene was shot at the actual Oktoberfest, the likeliest candidate would be screenwriter Garfield.

Well, that’s confusing. There are actually four spies at Oktoberfest — at least. Two of them are feature players Walter Matthau and Herbert Lom. But then there’s another couple, male and female, and since “Shan” is a somewhat androgynous name in my view, I can’t say which is “spy in Oktoberfest.” Neither of these two dirty blonds looks like Garfield, or Westlake, or Block.

The mystery, if we can call it that, probably doesn’t have a particularly impressive solution. It could all just be a daft coincidence, like a real film called MAN IN THE MIDDLE and a fictional one both starring guys who played Marlowe. So I’m tempted to leave it dangling. Never trade an intriguing mystery for a boring solution.


Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2023 by dcairns

I got hooked on Margery Allingham’s Campion books last year. I think she rates a couple of posts at least.

Allingham created her fictional detective Albert Campion in her second published novel, The Crime at Black Dudley (1929), and kept writing about him the rest of her life, with a little time off for side-projects. On the face of it, Campion is a somewhat derivative character — he has a lot in common with Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey and a little in common with Raffles, Boston Blackie, the Lone Wolf and the Falcon. He’s a very posh gent who hides behind a veneer of Bertie Woosterish silly-ass buffoonery and large horn-rimmed spectacles. But he’s also acquired the agility of a cat-burglar, the ability to pick locks, and the friendship and occasional assistance of many in the criminal underworld. He has an ex-con, Lugg, as manservant: a large, lugubrious man, he serves the same role as Blackie’s “the Runt,” while being his physical opposite.

The familiarity of these tropes adds to the books’ golden-age aura of cosiness, but in fact they’re quite unconventional as well. Allingham could write tight, fair-play mysteries when she chose to, but wasn’t satisfied limiting herself to that form. The Crime at Black Dudley plays like DIE HARD in a country house, with an unexplained murder happening during a hostage crisis. Campion himself is a supporting character and something of a deux ex machina. The only weakness is that the solution to the mystery depends entirely on information learned in the last chapter. I think if Allingham had constructed a real whodunnit and staged it against the backdrop of a group jeopardy thriller, she’d have had a really nice twist on the format. This would still be a good idea if somebody did it.

There was a TV show… I may have to check it out.

A couple of subsequent novels (Black Dudley and Mystery Mile) pit Campion against a Mabusean criminal outfit, “the Simister Gang” (Allingham’s character names tend towards the Dickensian). Police at the Funeral employs a really great twist, on a par with Christie’s genre-bending “the detective did it” and “the narrator did it” and “everybody did it” revelations. But by the time of Death of a Ghost in 1934, she’s experimenting with the structure: the killer is known halfway through the book, and the tension comes from the question of “How can we get any evidence to convict?” This kind of radical non-whodunnit approach recurs semi-regularly in MA’s books.

There’s also a bold streak of John Buchanesque adventuring, with international intrigues (Sweet Danger) and large-scale domestic espionage (Traitor’s Purse). The last-named is one of two wartime novels that hint that Campion has joined British Intelligence – these books also show the influence of American pulp fiction and noir. TP combines its wartime forgery plot (the Germans, it turned out later, really DID plot to destabilise the UK economy with forged banknotes) with a homegrown fascist villain suggestive of Cecil Day-Lewis/Nicholas Blake’s The Smiler with the Knife *and* an amnesia ploy suggestive of… well, everything. SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT and TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE and SPELLBOUND hadn’t been made yet, though, so it may well be a literary influence rather than a movie one. What were the hot amnesia stories in 1942? The second wartime book, Coroner’s Pidgin, uses the gimmick of the hero always being frustrated in his desire to sleep, eat or drink, and adds to this his desire to get away to his country retreat, for reasons not revealed until the rather moving final chapter.

Oh yes, Campion gets romantic interest, unlike a lot of his fellow sleuths (Agatha Christie turned down a lucrative MGM deal because they wouldn’t guarantee Poirot’s celibacy). Allingham works her way up to this gently, and it’s part of the gradual evolution that sees her hero becoming less eccentric and caricatured, and more real.

The best-known of the books is Tiger in the Smoke, which sidelines Campion so much that the film version was able to leave him out entirely. I’ve written about the movie before but want to revisit it. Seeing it in the light of the book makes its weaknesses more obvious but it’s still an interesting thing, with its own mystery about it. Again, a comparison with Nicholas Blake’s work is possible: when Claude Chabrol adapted Blake’s The Beast Must Die, he also found it convenient to delete the sleuth, Nigel Strangeways (originally inspired by the personality of W.H. Auden). The recent Ridley Scott-produced TV version reinstated Strangeways and made everything worse.

Several fans remark on Allingham’s work lacking the snobbery and racism of other golden age writers, but this is not entirely correct. There’s some throwaway antisemitism and hackneyed post-WWI evil Huns in the early books, the working-class characters tend very much to the caricatured (though Lugg is lovable), and Campion himself is discernibly High Tory, like his creator. But it’s true that the moments of discomfort are rare enough that the books are still very enjoyable, and Allingham writes a hell of a lot better than Sax Rohmer:

The fog had crept into the taxi where it crouched panting in a traffic jam. It oozed in ungenially, to smear sooty fingers over the two elegant young people who sat inside. They were keeping apart self-consciously, each stealing occasional glances in the same kind of fear at their clasped hands resting between them on the shabby leather seat.

I still have a ton of these to read. Maybe we’ll eventually get THREE blog posts out of them?

Blanc Spaces

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2022 by dcairns

Thoroughly enjoyed GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY. Until the ending. I don’t want to offer any major spoilers, which makes discussing the film difficult — stop reading NOW if you haven’t seen it but plan to — highlight the following blank patch if you want to read it — I’ll just say that I value art and leave it at that. I think there would be other ways of delivering that plot point without the wholehearted endorsement of philistine vandalism. And I’ll leave it at that.

Throughout this piece, highlight the sinister blank spaces if you want the spoilers. This might not work on a phone?

Otherwise, we get further evidence of Janelle Monae’s dramatic intensity and versatility — I think Rian Johnson probably knows that he’s violating one of Ronald Knox’s Ten Rules of Detective Fiction — number 10 — and of Daniel Craig’s willingness to be silly. Strong perfs all round, with particular praise, in my book, going to Edward Norton, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista. Fun cameos too, even the two by persons subsequently deceased irl, which can’t help but having a melancholic quality even as the bring joy.

And it was surprising how many of the lyrics of the titular Beatles track, a distinctly minor work, lined up with plot points or in-jokes.

I’m reading lots of mysteries just now — expect a post on Margery Allingham shortly — and this one successfully flummoxed me — as with KO, I guessed a couple of things but wasn’t able to draw any certain conclusions about the central whodunnit, howdunnit or whydunnit. Even the whendunnit angle was slightly uncertain.

It now transpires that Johnson is at work on a detective-type TV show, Poker Face, starring Natasha Lyonne, which he’s co-writing and maybe all-directing? I am both there and down for that.