Archive for The Beast Must Die

Stranger Ways (Dome’s Drone)

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , on October 14, 2021 by dcairns

Followed up my Nicholas Blake reading by actually watching The Beast Must Die, the recent TV adaptation. A really,really strong performance by Cush Jumbo as the avenging mother (a father in the book) — she gets a long-held close-up in episode one which was the main thing that kept me watching. A typically good performance by Jared Harris as the titular beast — he seemed to be using more of his famous dad’s energy than usual. And, as in the book, the detective hero, Nigel Strangeways, played by Billy Howle, is a bit of a dud. Absent from all the really key scenes, robbed of the task of solving a mystery for us, he seems like an unnecessary remnant, a vestigial toe of the cosy crime story in the novel, and all the efforts of screenwriter Gaby Chiappe to make him interesting — chiefly by giving him a case of PTSD — come to nothing. It’s not the actor’s fault. I think when you define a task — as I think those involved have done here — as “make something interesting” — you’re already on course to lose, because you’re taking something you see as boring and trying to hang tinsel on it.

I see that Chiappe also wrote THEIR FINEST, which I previously detested. Sorry. I will avoid future writings from this author because it just feels mean. I didn’t set out to hate-watch it. Although, this is an improvement. In the plus camp, the show MOSTLY avoids the leaden exposition that plagues British TV writing (I don’t think the boom in US quality TV has inspired anything comparable over here), the real protagonist’s story is compelling — meanwhile Strangeways spends three episodes trying to solve a broken window — director Dome Karukoski keeps things expansive and propulsive whenever possible — the reliance on drone shots doesn’t feel too hackneyed — already the drone feels as tiresomely ubiquitous as the ’70s helicopter, but it can still work — the modernisation of Blake’s yarn is skillfully done. And yet — the series doesn’t have what Blake’s novel had, that genuinely heartbreaking quality of a bereaved parent. It’s curious how that is absent entirely, given the leads’ sure-handedness.

Strangeways

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2021 by dcairns

I’m intrigued by poet Cecil Day-Lewis (and father of that other D-L) and his second life as crime writer Nicholas Blake. The mysteries of Nigel Strangeways are nicely, if unspectacularly written. Strangeways differs from most amateur sleuths in his being defiantly UN-eccentric. But there’s another key aspect to Blake’s mysteries which means the makers of the new version of The Beast Must Die might be struggling to find a sequel in any of the twenty extant Blake-Strangeways books.

Two of Blake’s novels have received more attention, particularly in the film world, than all the rest.

The Beast Must Die – nothing to do with werewolves – is the most popular of the novels. It’s an outlier, for a few reasons. Fair-play whodunits and cosy crime novels tend to keep emotion at a distance. The victims are usually either unpopular, dislikable characters (which provides lengthy suspect lists and obviates all that messy grief) or solitary figures without close dependents (or both). Or, if there are grieving loved ones, they’re shuffled off-stage as fast as decently arrangeable, or are portrayed so woodenly their bereavement has no disquieting effect on the reader. (I love how, in Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi mystery A Maze of Death, a character, noting the glassy underreaction of his fellow suspect/prospective victims in a Ten Little Indians scenario, deduces that they must all be amnesiac psychopaths, simply because they’re behaving exactly like the people in mystery novels always do.) In The Beast Must Die, the motivation for the murder is so distressing, and traumatic for the man involved, that it overwhelms the mystery aspect completely — so that the first two film versions, Román Viñoly Barreto’s Argentinian version of 1952, and Claude Chabrol’s French one of 1969, are able to excise Mr. Strangeways altogether, and the plot if anything gets better.

The other significant film connection with Blake is Orson Welles’ putative film of The Smiler with the Knife, abandoned in favour of what became CITIZEN KANE. This time, Blake himself largely dispensed with his protag, handing the story over to his plucky wife Georgia. She’s required to inveigle her way into the confidences of a fascist leader plotting a coup. Easy to see how Welles would have been interested in a political thriller like that, transposing the story to the US and casting Lucille Ball and himself as the heavy in a story that would have had aspects of NOTORIOUS avant la lettre.

Welles definitely definitely made the right choice for his film debut, but SMILER the movie remains an intriguing might-have-been. It might, actually, have provided its director with a solid commercial hit.

I can’t quite forgive Blake for killing off Georgia Strangeways between novels, though he gives Nigel a girlfriend later, the sculptor Clare Massinger, who’s quite good fun.

But the other aspect of Blake’s novels I’ve discovered is strongly negative: he can’t write mysteries. I have dim memories of a few of them I read a while back, but one, The Whisper in the Gloom (televised and Americanized and Disneyfied as The Kids Who Knew Too Much in 1980) depends on an inexplicable coincidence which really gets the reader wondering — but is left as an inexplicable coincidence at the novel’s end. Spoiler alert: it’s borrowed from Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, making the revised title very apt.

This seems like a big cheat, but The Ghastly Hollow and The Widow’s Cruise both play fair — the trouble is they’re amazing guessable. I rarely guess the solutions to mysteries, despite reading a lot of them, a bit about them, and having a sort of crack at it myself. Blake’s derivative side is evident in both books: TGH is a poison pen story possibly derived from Clouzot’s LA CORBEAU or Richard Llewellyn’s play Poison Pen, filmed in 1939; TWC is a kind of Bette Davis sister act. What Blake does with the stories is fairly original, I wouldn’t call him a plagiarist (though Gloom comes very close), it’s just that he utterly fails to hide his clues in plain view. He just leaves them lying in plain view, or actively thrusts them under our noses like an idiot magician forcing a card on us, but a card he really wants to conceal.

I can’t work out how Blake/Day-Lewis managed to spin out a career in mysteries as long as he did. His best two books have the least mystery, and every time the solving of the crime is central to the story, he muffs it. Still, I guess it kept him fed while he wrote his poetry, and kept his soon-to-be-distinguished son clad, so that was worthwhile. I admire his The Poetic Image (1947) as a work of criticism.

His books are very readable but I must stop reading them because they don’t satisfy. He’s like the opposite of John Dickson Carr: Carr’s impossible crimes, colourful detectives and jaunty dialogue are far more uplifting, far less real, and he plays far less fair. But at least you’ll never guess who done it.

Cosy Crime

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2016 by dcairns

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Fiona was having a tough time — she concussed herself on a door frame, and she quite her job after it became intolerable — and was looking for something light to read. I recommended some nice English murders.

First up was Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which I first heard about through David Bordwell’s site. DB is a mystery fan, which makes sense as he’s fascinated by the art of construction — stories, sequences, compositions. And Berkeley is a master of construction, delivering in this book a mystery which arrives at a fresh solution in every chapter. The whodunnit seems to be an art form which attained decadence at once, with baroque twists coming into play immediately — Agatha Christie pulled off most of the major outrages (the detective did it; the narrator did it; everybody did it), while John Dickson Carr (AKA Carter Dixon) was content to perform infinite, mad variations on the locked room/impossible crime scenario. But Berkeley, a better stylist with a deeper interest in character psychology, combined outrageously twisty narratives with humour and a degree of emotional depth.

Like Christie and Carr, he had two main detectives, the mousey Mr. Chitterwick and the more flamboyant Roger Sheringham. The name Roger Sheringham is so rosy and British it makes me smile just to type it. Both appear as dueling criminologists in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and Chitterwick takes centre stage in The Piccadilly Murder, in which he witnesses what only later turns out to be a murder. He’s a funny little character and his adventures are lightly likeable, but Trial and Error is something more — Chitterwick is reduced to a supporting role while the protagonist is Mr. Todhunter, a rumpled bachelor who, upon learning he has a terminal aneurysm, resolves to rid the world of an outstanding human pest as a kind of farewell act — a humanitarian murder (for a crime writer, Berkeley is surprisingly pro-murder). The problem arises not with the crime itself, which goes quite smoothly after some difficulty in selective a worthy target (the year is 1937: Hitler and Mussolini are both considered). But an innocent man is suspected, then arrested, then convicted, and Todhunter finds he has staged his homicide too well — with no proof, he cannot convince anyone of his guilt, and Scotland Yard regard him as a crank. Enter Mr. Chitterwick.

The book is funny, devilishly clever (with only a couple of awkward moments where things have to be carefully arranged to conceal twists, and the trickery doesn’t quite convince), and the mild-mannered assassin is a delightful figure — Berkeley fairly puts him through the ringer.

Sheringham dominates in The Silk Stocking Murders, an early (1928) serial killer yarn which I’ve just begun (this 1941 thriller rips it off actionably), Panic Party, and The Second Shot. Ever ludic, Berkeley strands his cast of suspects in the first book on a desert island and has Sheringham grumpily refuse to do any investigating at all for the entire length of the book, on the grounds that heightening the atmosphere of mutual suspicion would be disastrous. Civilisation breaks down anyway, with distressing scenes reminiscent of both Lord of the Flies and THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL — usually, in these things, decorum is preserved even in the face of any number of lead-pipe-in-the-library assassinations. In the last chapter, rescued from the island, Roger clears up the case in a few sentences, but does nothing about it.

The Second Shot is equally odd — narrated by Cyril Pinkerton, a pathological prig, it builds up an atmosphere of anxiety until its intensely annoying lead character comes to seem pathetic, loveable and vulnerable, enmeshed as he is in a web of circumstantial evidence. Entering at the halfway mark, Sheringham makes things even hotter for him, shamelessly bullying the prissy squirt, clearing his name and even playing cupid in a charmingly unlikely romance. There’s a first-rate cad character also, for fans of cads (and aren’t we all?).

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Berkeley, like Carr, also wrote under pseudonyms, and as Francis Iles he’s the author of Before the Fact, filmed by Hitchcock as SUSPICION, and Malice Aforethought, which also tempted Hitch. Fiona and I fondly remember a 70s BBC adaptation with Hywel Bennett (it’s on YouTube). Truffaut’s book approvingly quotes the opening sentence: “It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter.” Better yet, it goes on, “Naturally his decision did not arrive ready-made. It evolved gradually, the fruit of much wistful cogitation.” Wistful cogitation is very fine indeed.

Fiona also followed me in reading Nicholas Blake’s The Smiler with the Knife, which Orson Welles once considered adapting, and became hungry for more Georgia Strangeways adventures. Sadly, Blake (AKA poet laureate and actor-dad Cecil Day Lewis) doesn’t seem to have provided any, using her as red herring in one book and muse to amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways in at best a couple more (The Beast Must Die being the best-known). Minute for Murder is a very good Strangeways yarn, set in the Ministry of Morale, a thinly-veiled version of the Ministry of Information where the author spent the war. Blake has a weakness for coincidence, but once you accept the premise that the MOM is a hotbed of adultery, espionage, blackmail and murder, it’s a psychologically acute, entertaining and even emotional thriller, featuring a British spy who operates in drag and delights in camping it up. It feels like Day Lewis, who we can assume didn’t normally get out much, was reinvigorated by his wartime experience, deskbound thought it was. Sadly, we learn in this one that Georgia Strangeways has been killed in the blitz.
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In The Whisper in the Gloom, Strangeways has a new romantic interest, sculptor Clare Massinger, so I’m not sure why Blake rendered him single. This one hinges on outrageous contrivance, such as a small boy acquiring a clue which seems to be his own name and age: Bert Hale, 12. This grabs the attention, but turns out to mean something quite different, and the coincidence has no alibi — characters in the book regularly dismiss some apparent situations as being unbelievable, which just makes the glaring improbability at the book’s core even more ludicrous. But there’s fun stuff with the kids reminiscent of HUE AND CRY, and a climax borrowed wholesale from Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (which the Master was just about to remake). When the Disneyland TV show adapted this, they called it The Kids Who Knew Too Much. True to form, Strangeways does not appear. Was ever a detective so prone to being deleted from his own adventures?