Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Again, Three More from Hitch

I've been hitting the AFI Silver, catching more of their Hitchcock retrospective. Here's what I've seen lately...
Some of Salvador Dali's design for SPELLBOUND's dream sequence.
SPELLBOUND (1945) has psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman becoming infatuated with the incoming chief of the posh institution where she work. Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck) is handsome and suave, but also has some eccentricities, and it's not long before she figures out that he's not really Dr. Edwardes...but he has no real idea of who he is. The puzzle of his real identity leads them to the discovery of a murder...

It's a good thriller, and loaded up with a lot of psychoanalytic content. Everything depends on psychology in Ben Hecht's script. It's also technically interesting; there's a weird, memorable score by Miklos Rozsa, and many experimental visuals, including the final confrontation where we see from the murderer's viewpoint the hand holding the gun, and the final explosion into color.

I don't think he needs help changing a tire...

Of course, the BIG deal is the dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali, where many clues to the murder are coded in bizarre imagery. It's arresting and unforgettable, worth the price of admission alone.

Next was THE PARADINE CASE (1947), a film not often seen, and there's reason why. It's a mess. Sexy Alida Valli is arrested for the off-screen murder of her blind war-hero husband. She hires top British barrister Gregory Peck (yes, that's right, Gregory Peck as a Brit, barely attempting an accent), who is married to perky Ann Todd but finds himself falling for Valli. And then he develops a defense for trying to pin the murder on the husband's devoted valet, played by a young Louis Jourdan...

OK, it's obvious the leads are miscast, except for Todd, who does quite a good job as the faithful yet confused wife. Joan Tetzel is also quite good as Todd's best friend, the daughter of one of Peck's associates. There's also good supporting turns by Charles Coburn as Tetzel's father, Charles Laughton as a wisecracking judge, and Ethel Barrymore as his beleaguered, ignored wife. Hitch had wanted Greta Garbo for the Valli role, Laurence Olivier or Ronald Coleman for the Peck role, and Robert Newton for the Jourdan role, but producer David O. Selznick interfered with production left and right, rewriting the script and recutting the movie and insisting on his "discoveries" being featured.

Sadly, the finished product has all sorts of story problems and ends up being fairly dull. I dozed a few times in the theater, a rarity for me.

Most recently was 1946's NOTORIOUS, featuring the memorable pairing of Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. Bergman is the daughter of a convicted Nazi criminal, and there's very discreet hints that she's known as a promiscuous, hard-drinking party girl. (Almost too discreet!) Federal agent Grant coaxes her into being a spy for Uncle Sam, taking her to Rio de Janeiro where she's to meet and romance another Nazi, Claude Rains. In order to get secrets from him, she ends up marrying him, causing trouble with her budding romance with Grant, but later stumbles on a big secret...

NOTORIOUS is a slick, well-made film, moving quickly and with good performances by the cast. Bergman is especially radiant as tramp making good, then finding herself in over her head. It's also interesting for an early glimpse of a destructive mother/son dynamic (seen in various spots in Hitch's work), as Rains' Nazi isn't half as evil and venomous as his manipulative mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), who very much seems to be the real brains of the outfit. The ending is a bit vague, but we're given enough clues to know what's going to happen, and there's enough finality that much else isn't needed. Still, Bergman and Grant are a great team (they reunited 12 years later for the sophisticated Stanley Donen comedy INDISCREET, which I suddenly want to see again), Rains and the rest of the supporting cast are good, and it's well-paced, and a suspense essential.

More on the way...


It's 666 CE (or AD, depending on your viewpoint), and Judge Dee has been assigned to a new post, as magistrate of Han-Yuan, a city in the mountains on the shore of a lake, without walls but close to the Capitol. Dee is unsure of being in a city without walls, but so far things seem quiet enough.

Until the city's leading citizens honor him with a banquet on a flower boat (a sort of floating restaurant/brothel), and the beautiful dancer Almond Blossom grasps a chance to whisper to Dee that she must speak to him later, and that a dangerous conspiracy was being plotted in that town. But before she can give Dee any information, she is drowned in the lake...

And then we're thrown into another full-blooded mystery/adventure with Dee and his retinue. Again, it's three cases, all connected in some way. "The Case of the Drowned Courtesan" is central; who killed Almond Blossom? Who could have overheard her whispering to Dee? And exactly what is the dangerous conspiracy? In "The Case of the Vanished Bride," a young bride is found dead the morning after her wedding, apparently from hemorrhage after having her hymen broken (rare, but as far as I can tell, not unheard of). Both are children of prominent citizens, and the kerfuffle is made worse when her coffin is opened at the Buddhist temple and is found to contain an unidentified man! And the groom? He vanished as well. Where are they? Finally, "The Case of the Spendthrift Councilor" centers on a former Imperial Councilor living in retirement in the city. He's quite old, seemingly becoming senile, but is also engaging in strange business deals where he's selling off lots of property at a loss. What's going on?

Also, there's something you find in a few of van Gulik's other works, a framing story involving the supernatural. In this case, an official who's involved in a fiendish conspiracy, and plagued with uncontrollable incestuous desires for his own daughter, goes to Han-Yuan and meets a beautiful courtesan who seems to be the answer to his problems...until she tells him a story that forms the story's narrative. Then she becomes a drowned corpse, and her spirit forces him to write everything down before his life ends. It's chilling. (And all of that is in the first chapter, so it's not much of a spoiler.)

Dee's retinue becomes complete in this novel; about halfway through, during an inspection tour of outlying villages, he and his assistants meet an itinerant swindler, Tao Gan, and save him from a pack of angry villagers. Out of gratitude, Tao reforms and pledges his loyalty to Dee, and plays an important role in resolving the mystery.

There's fights, plots, counterplots, passion, secret doors, hidden tunnels, crooked monks, and hints of fearsome supernatural creatures living in the lake. It all ends well, of course, although Dee barely escapes with his job and/or life.

This has always one of my favorite Dee novels; the setting is well-drawn and atmospheric, from the lake to the "Willow Quarter" where the brothels are, to the tribunal and the huge mansions where the wealthy live. And the menace that hangs over all of them.

Required reading, of course.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lillian de la Torre's Sam: Johnson Stories, Part Four

Let us return for one last time to England of the 1700s. The Exploits of Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector is the fourth and last volume of stories dedicated to the adventures of the famous lexicographer, and while it's not up to the literary standards of the first volume, it's still got a lot of fun material and is a crackling good read.

So, case by case...

"The Kidnapp'd Earl" has Johnson brought in to aid young James Ansley, the heir to an earldom who was kidnapped and sold into indentured servitude so that a wicked uncle could claim the title. There's a wild trial, and finally proof of the heir's legitimacy via a wax figure of his grandfather. Not a very thrilling story, but the story it's based on, that of James Annesley, is stranger even than the story. James was really kidnapp'd by a wicked uncle, but never got to reclaim his title, as both he and his children died young leaving Uncle Richard the heir to the title. The case is also in Smollet's Peregrine Pickle and Scott's Guy Mannering, and is said to have partially inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped.

In "The Westcombe Witch," set in September of 1768, are in the south of England and end up encountering the rake Sir Francis Flashwood and his delicious daughter Fanny. Francis is said to have Black Masses in his strange estate, and Boswell, in search of a thrill, goes to join them one night and ends up in a bizarre situation. Johnson figures out that there's something else going on, though. Obviously, this is a fictionalized portrait of Sir Francis Dashwood and his Hell-Fire Club, but so heavily so that names had to be changed.

Looking less Satanic then like a jovial frat boy.

May of 1776 is the setting of "The Banquo Trap," where Boswell and Johnson are attending a performance of "Macbeth" starring their old friend David Garrick, who's gearing up for retirement and redoing his great roles one last time. However, in the middle of the performance, the actor playing Banquo's ghost turns up at the table gasping and dying. Johnson and Boswell dash backstage and delve into the stagecraft and interpersonal politics to find out who was responsible, and why. This story re-creates the theater milieu of the day, as well as a real performance of the play (unmarred by murder).

Also set in 1776, December this time, "The Spirit of the '76" is an entertaining what-if tale with Johnson being called in to aid with the kidnapping of a child...only it turns out that the child is the grandson of Benjamin Franklin, who was blown off-course on his way to France and is taking advantage of the situation to get hold of some gold and see an old friend. The meeting of the two is precious; although they shared many beliefs, such as the abolition of slavery, Johnson held the American colonists in contempt (once publishing a tract called "Taxation No Tyranny") and felt the Revolution was pointless. It all ends happily, with a guest appearance by Sir Francis Flashwood and a grudging acceptance that the Brits will have their hands full with "the spirit of the '76."

Love this grandiose portrait of Franklin...

"The Virtuosi Venus" is set in May of 1778, and concerns Johnson and Boswell attending a meeting of a society of art appreciators (including Sir Francis Flashwood again), only to discover that their mascot, a figurine of Venus discovered at Pompeii, has been stolen and replaced with a clever fake. Who took it? Whence came the fake? Where's the real one? Why did they do it? It's all uncovered by Johnson in an enjoyable plot. The Virtuosi are a fictional riff on the real-life Society of Dilettanti, and the Venus was not part of their treasures, but was inspired by a painting of the real Dashwood...

By Hogarth, this portrait of Dashwood parodies pious Renaissance paintings; the "Bible" is really an erotic novel and the image in the "halo" is of Dashwood's friend Lord Sandwich. The little Venus in the portrait inspired the story.
The last two stories are a sort of Omega and Alpha. "The Aerostatick Globe," set shortly before Johnson's death in 1784, which is an adventure about the competition to be the first person to fly a balloon in England. It quotes real dialogue about the possibility of airmail and military applications of flight (those folks back then were pretty sharp), and attempts to sabotage the efforts of Vincenzo Lunardi, a celebrated aeronaut of the time. It's all good fun but also fairly wistful, as the shadow of Johnson's declining health and coming death hang over it...but he did live to see the skies of Britain conquered.

The very last, "Coronation Story," takes place at the coronation of George III, on Sept. 22 of 1761, and has Boswell looking on in the company of a burly man whom he doesn't know but feels a certain kinship with. Another man sitting nearby excites some interest in the pair, and they realize it's the Young Pretender himself, come to observe, and can't help himself but disrupt the ceremony (which includes lots of real details like a stubborn horse and a huge diamond dropping out of the crown, which was said to be an omen of a great loss to the Empire). So the little group goes on the run to help the Pretender escape to France and stay a step ahead of the guards. In order that the secret be kept, they "part as strangers." Boswell and Johnson didn't meet for real until 1763.

This story is a cute bit of speculation, but has problems. We're expected to swallow that the two friends spend their lives pretending this little meeting never happened, and it also violates the continuity of the previous stories, because in "Prince Charlie's Ruby" from the first book, they are utterly thrilled to meet the Young Pretender...and there's no reason for the three of them to pretend it never happened.

Oh well, it's the last one of the series. The back of the paperback vaguely promises a fifth volume, but it never came to be. De la Torre was supposedly working on new things when she died in 1993, but as far as I know nobody's stepped up to complete them. Unfortunately, these four books are all that can be found these days of her oeuvre; her other works, like Elizabeth is Missing (an analysis of the Elizabeth Canning case), are hard to find. Grab 'em if you find 'em!


Grabien ups the game a bit with her second supernatural mystery starring folksinger/restorationist Ringan Lane and his girlfriend Penelope Wintercraft-Hawkes.

Penelope is the head of a theatrical company, the Tamburlaine Players, that specializes in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. She has an unexpected legacy one day: an aunt she barely knew has died, and has left her an abandoned theater and enough cash to renovate it. She's thrilled about the possibility of having a permanent home for her company, but of course, the theater turns out to be haunted, and she and Ringan have to marshal all their resources to end the haunting.

It's definitely a BIG improvement on her last book, The Weaver and the Factory Maid. The ghost is a genuine problem, not a minor nuisance. It makes the theater unusable and is actually responsible for a death, although it's ambiguous if it's a deliberate murder or just accidental. The scenes in the old theater are fun and atmospheric; how can one resist an abandoned, haunted theater?

There's still some problems. The haunting is connected to a long-ago murder case that inspired a classic folk ballad (which is, of course, the idea behind the series), and of course, they happen upon a historian who just happens to be obsessed with that case and makes it her specialty. And we're asked to buy that said historian is Penelope's sister's best friend whom Penny has never met (the friend, that is). But at least there's some real detection going on here, and a real menace to resolve, and it's done rather memorably.

So, it's an improvement, but still with flaws. However, those flaws don't disqualify it from being worth checking out.

As a bonus, here's a version of the ballad that inspired the book:

Quick Take: Down in the Catacombs

A charming little place...
The Wall Street Journal ran an article recently on the culture that's sprung up in Paris' catacombs, with clubs and restaurants opening up underground, and also of explorers venturing into the lesser-known and unfrequented sections. I once read of how authorities once discovered the location of an illegal movie theater and club down in there (disappointingly, the movies they found were distressingly mundane), and another time I saw something on TV featuring some Blair Witch-esque footage found in a video camera abandoned down there, where the bearer was moving along through the tunnels in an increasing state of panic, then finally dropping the device and last seen fleeing out of sight. (Probably faked, but still, fairly nifty.)

Since this blog is partially founded in romantic and eerie visions of Paris (I'm sure that when I get back to the real City of Lights I shall be most disappointed), and we do like the idea of all the best and most proper cities having catacombs (alas, something of which Washington has a paucity, save for some replica catacombs under the Franciscan Monastery; one supposes all the decent catacombs have been taken over by the Department of Homeland Security), I'll post a link to the story here. Read and dream.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


Recently finished this, and was going to review it...but then I read my buddy Sasha's review of it, and he said everything I would have said, and better. So go over to his site and read his take on it, which is pretty much mine as well. And then go out and pick up your own copy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

At the Cinema: Hitch's SABOTEUR

This comes between two of his better-regarded films, SUSPICION and SHADOW OF A DOUBT, but SABOTEUR (1942) is worth checking out.

Defense-plant worker Robert Cummings has a run-in with a mysterious fellow employee named Fry (symbolism!), and shortly after that a bomb goes off setting fire to the factory. Cummings hands a fire extinguisher to his best pal...but it's been filled with gasoline, and the friend perishes in the blaze. Cummings is called in, but when nobody named Fry shows up on the employee list, and they start suspecting him of sabotage and murder, he has to go on the run to clear his name and find out who's really behind it all.

SABOTEUR is very clearly a rough draft of the romantic-comedy-chase-thriller that Hitch perfected with NORTH BY NORTHWEST, with the man falsely suspected, the icy blond girl, and the locations spanning most of the country, both ending with a dizzying climax on a major American landmark. (In NBNW it's Mount Rushmore; in SABOTEUR it's the Statue of Liberty.)

Look in the lower left-hand corner...yeah....
One interesting aspect is how Hitch shows different segments of American society reacting. The masterminds of the sabotage ring are wealthy American plutocrats, not sneering foreigners, who welcome a totalitarian government as a way of increasing their own wealth. Rank-and-file Americans automatically believe what they're told by authorities, make snap judgements based on appearances ("You look like a saboteur," sneers one character to Cummings), or are so complacent they refuse to believe the people they look up to are traitors. The only truly good people who believe in his innocence are society's outsiders, in the form of a gentle blind hermit and a troupe of circus freaks. It's tempting to see this as a jaundiced view of Americans, and also as a warning to us all that the real enemies of freedom aren't just foreigners, but the wealthy ruling class themselves, thinking only of their own wealth and power. It's almost Socialistic.

It's big and sprawling, and there's dangling plot threads, but when all's said and done it's good fun. And while NORTH BY NORTHWEST works on Cold War paranoia, SABOTEUR plays off wartime fears of spies and sabotage. See it and be thrilled.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Saturday Night at the Cinema: Frankenstein!

It's Saturday night, and after we've scoured the used book store and had a bite at that restaurant that always puts tables together for our group, and the waiter always laughs patiently as we debate how to split up the bill, let's pop into our favorite movie house for a film. Tonight, we'll indulge in a century-old piece of genre cinema, the Edison Company's Frankenstein.

Although Thomas Edison is usually credited as a producer, my sources say that he had nothing to do with the film. This was the first film adaptation of the story, and was considered a lost film until the 1970s, when it was found in the archives of a private collector (who'd had it for years but had never watched it and didn't know what it was). It's wild to see how inventive this was, even by modern standards.

Well, the show's over; let's head down to the late-night cafe for some coffee or absinthe before we all go our separate ways, shall we?

Monday, May 9, 2011


The last case from Dee's sojourn in Peng-lai, only this time he's in a neighboring district.

Dee and his stalwart lieutenant Chiao Tai are on their way home after a conference in the capitol, and stop off in the city of Wei-ping for a week's vacation, incognito. He stops to pay a call on the district's magistrate, Teng, a famed poet who's also noted for his devotion to his beautiful wife, Silver Lotus. Only Dee finds Teng to be irritable and rude, and after he leaves and he and Chiao Tai are supping in a restaurant, a local criminal mistakes them for fellow lawbreakers and takes them to the headquarters of the local underworld, where they get a rare glimpse of the comings and goings of the city's criminals.

Like other books in the series, there's three mysteries going on here, but they're very intertwined and one is barely a mystery at all. In "The Case of the Lacquer Screen," it's revealed that Teng's wife, Silver Lotus, has been murdered in her bed, and Dee ends up simultaneously assisting in a cover-up and trying to uncover what was going on her life that could have possibly led to her death. He also hears a weird story from Teng, of how his life has paralleled a lacquered screen standing in his home, and how now he fears he murdered his wife in a fit of madness. "The Case of the Credulous Merchant" concerns the mysterious suicide of a local merchant, and disappearance of his body. In "The Case of the Faked Accounts" one of the local thieves has a book of strangely altered accounts that links to another mystery in the book.

The separation between the stories is slim; the cases of the Credulous Merchant and the Faked Accounts are really pretty much one and the same, and figures in the other two play roles in the case of the Lacquer Screen. But it's still a good read. There are elements of film noir in the cases of the merchant and the accounts, and the murder of Silver Lotus is overflowing with gothicism and twisted emotions. (There's a great scene where Dee goes with a local thug to where her corpse is lying, in the swamps; he terrifies the man with stories of evil spirits, then casts a mumbo-jumbo spell to keep him in one spot until he's finished.)

There are also a lot of good characterizations. There's the Corporal, the head of the local underworld, an essentially decent man fallen on hard times but who does his best to keep the thugs in line and won't stand for murder. And there's psychotic burglar Kun-Shan, and the Student, a wannabe thief who's not much better. Golden-hearted prostitute Carnation is a valuable ally (and there's a nice scene between her and Dee when they go undercover at a house of assignation).

As always, the reader gets the cast list with the three cases, and an array of illustrations. There's no map of the city, disappointingly, but there is a cool illustration of the four panels of the screen that gives the book its title. And the glimpses into Chinese culture are always good fun. I just loved the bed in the house of assignation, where illicit lovers leave poems, composed on the spot, pinned to the wall all around. Imagine that in a modern motel room...

This isn't the best of the series, but as with all the Dee novels, it's highly recommended.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Lillian de la Torre's Sam: Johnson Stories, Part Three

This volume represents a move forward for de la Torre and Johnson; one story is copyright 1947, and the rest are from the 70s. I have no idea why there was the break of a couple decades, but there it is.
There's also a move from sheer detection to a more adventurous slant. The stories aren't as much Johnson using his sharp senses to detect a crime, but acting as a sort of Simon Templar-ish gentleman adventurer tackling some evil of the day. Still, they're good reading.

This is also the first volume of the series I ever read; I remember coming across it at a used book sale while I was in college in the mid-80s.

And so, on to the stories...

"Murder Lock'd In" (London, 1763) is a locked-room mystery taking place just as Johnson and Boswell are meeting and getting to know each other. An old lady and her maid are killed, and the room is locked (or lock'd) from the inside. There's been a robbery, but are the culprits for that responsible for the deaths? What makes this so interesting is that it's more or less a true story, a real murder and robbery that ended in a girl's hanging, that happened in that year, but Johnson was not involved.

"The Bedlam Bam" (London, 1768; the term "bam" is an abbreviation for "bamboozle") is an adventure tale. Johnson and Boswell go to visit a crusading parson who feigned madness to get committed to Bethlehem Royal Hospital (aka Bedlam) to experience their treatment of the mad first-hand. However, a scheming relative of the parson plans to keep him inside, and thus control the parson's money and beautiful daughter. Johnson hatches a scheme to get him out, and leads the forces of evil on a merry chase.

"The Disappearing Servant Wench" (London, year is not clear) is a fictionalization of the real-life Elizabeth Canning case, of which de la Torre wrote a full-length treatment in another book. A servant girl disappears, then shows up a month later, much the worse for wear, with a vivid story of kidnapping and forced prostitution. However, an investigation of the place where she claimed to have been held prisoner clicks in some ways with her story, but with some glaring inconsistencies. Was she really abducted? Is she lying? De la Torre offers an interesting solution that she claims came to her in a dream.

Canning the dock.
Next up is another topical adventures, "The Blackamoor Unchain'd," set in 1772, when Johnson and Boswell strike a blow against the slave trade. An escapee from a West Indian slave ship is hiding out with Johnson's black servant, and although there's no slavery in England, there's still complicated laws supporting the rights of slave owners from other countries. But the team plan to get the friend free, and barely manage to do so before the ship sets sail again. This at least gives some background to Johnson's grousing against the Americans at the time; he saw the irony of a slave-owning nation making a big deal about "freedom." We get to meet noted abolitionist Granville Sharp, and hear a stirring slogan, "The air of England has long been too pure for a slave, and every man is free who breathes it!"

"The Lost Heir," dating from 1773, is de la Torre's fictional treatment of the controversy surrounding the Tichborne Claimant, a real case from the 1860s. A noble widow mourns her long-lost son, and suddenly a man is found claiming to be him. However, there's some remarkable differences, and he doesn't seem to know some things he should...but other private facts are known to him, and he has the right look. What's his story? What's the truth? Sadly, the solution to the story is a bit too easy, and it doesn't fit the facts of the real case, so de la Torre's proposed solution to the real case doesn't hold water.

"The Resurrection Men" looks at another criminal problem of the period, grave-robbing. Set in an indeterminate time (but possibly 1784), it has Johnson helping a grieving mother whose late husband's body was stolen by resurrectionists, and who now fears her late son's body will suffer the same fate. But Johnson has a plan, and sets a trap for the grave robbers and their confederate...

Real resurrection men, plying their trade.
Finally, "Milady Bigamy" is based on the real-life bigamy trial of Elizabeth Pierrepont, Duchess of Kingston-upon-Hull in 1778. It's a tale of light detection as Bellona Chamleigh, the Duchess of Kingston, is defending her name against a charge of bigamy. Although the real case ended in a guilty verdict (with the real Duchess escaping the branding iron by "pleading her clergy," i.e. proving she could read and write, which by an antiquated legalism got her off), the fictional case ends quite differently.

As with de la Torre's other stories, they're all good fun and dripping with historic atmosphere, and worth seeking out.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Judge Dee: Three Short Stories from Peng-Lai

A shot of some old structures in the real Penglai.

Robert van Gulik wrote a number of short stories about Judge Dee, almost all of which are published in one volume, Judge Dee at Work. They are arranged in chronological order, with brief introductory remarks putting each one in context. Since we're following Dee's career in order, we'll tackle the three stories that take place during his tenure in Peng-lai, his first post as magistrate.

In "The Five Auspicious Clouds," Dee is meeting with several notable locals when a tragedy is announced; the wife of Mr. Ho, one of the men in attendance, has hanged herself in their garden pavilion. Dee finds a clue in an incense-clock in a pattern that gives the story its title. It turns out Mrs. Ho might, just might have been unfaithful, and Dee goes to confront the man she was meeting. However, it takes a chance remark to tell Dee who the real murderer is.

It's not a bad story, if a bit lacking in atmosphere. The criminal-caught-by-their-own-chance-remark plot device is fairly hoary but is still used; it's an old reliable, I guess.

"The Red Tape Murder" has Dee on a routine administrative visit to a nearby military garrison, looking over files and records, when he's called in to look into a military matter; an unpopular officer was murdered, shot with an arrow in his own quarters. A well-liked officer is under arrest for the murder, having been in a perfect position to shoot him through the window, from another building. But something doesn't smell right about it, and Dee interviews the suspect and several others involved before finding the real murderer.

This is one of the lesser stories of the book, and I never really liked it. I never found the military setting all that interesting, and the murder method (spoilers!) of a person picking up an arrow between their toes and kicking it into someone's abdomen with enough force to kill them instantly (spoilers end) doesn't seem realistic to me.

The last of the Peng-lai triad is "He Came with the Rain," probably my favorite story in the book. Dee is out for a walk on a dreary morning after a rain, when he learns of a murder in an abandoned watchtower in the marshes outside the city. The apparent killer is under arrest, but Dee has to look deeper. The victim is an ugly, elderly retired pawnbroker from the city; what was he doing out there? He questions a deaf-mute girl who lives in the tower; although almost a half-wit, she gives some valuable information. And a visit to the victim's home provides some surprising clues. Soon the real killer, and the real motive, are revealed.

This story is rich in atmosphere; the descriptions of the misty marsh and the deaf girl's ruined tower are memorable. And yet again, I have a wistful fondness for the victim; he's an unattractive older man, not very well educated...but when Dee visits his home, he finds a beautiful library with tons of books of poetry, with notes in a clumsy hand. As a pawnbroker, he had to restrict his personal feelings, but he had the romantic soul of a poet, and yearned for the passionate love that his ugly face and age made unlikely. Maybe I'd bring him into play if I ever do a "what if" story with Magistrate Wang surviving the poisoning attempt...

Next up is a novel, The Lacquer Screen, in which Dee and Chiao Tai visit a neighboring district...

Monday, May 2, 2011

Lillian de la Torre's Sam: Johnson Stories, Part Two

The second collection of de la Torre's stories of Sam: Johnson, this volume has stories with copyrights ranging from 1947 to 1960, and present a lot of pure detection and deduction....and a bit more fiction, although with frequent additions of historical characters and situations.

"The Tontine Curse," set in Bath in 1779, is straight-up fiction. A tontine has been set up amongst a number of children, and an alarming number of them are meeting with sudden deaths. One pretty young girl keeps escaping with her life; is she merely fortunate, or is some other force at work? Is it a supernatural curse? Or the hand of man? There's not much historical about this other than Johnson's trip to Bath in 1779, but de la Torre wryly notes that tontines were practically invitations to multiple murder.

London of 1780 is the setting of "The Stroke of Thirteen," which is also largely fictitious. Johnson and Boswell are called in when a young soldier is tried at court martial, and sentenced to death, for falling asleep on watch. Not so, he cries, insisting that he heard the great bell of St. Paul's strike thirteen! And so Johnson sets off to find the truth of the matter. The situation isn't real, but there was a real incident when the bell in question did indeed strike thirteen, and one character, Captain John Donellan, turns out to have had quite a career later on.

"The Viotti Stradivarius", set in London in 1783, has a plethora of real-life characters who descended on a famous fiddle-maker's shop...in real life, they were frequent guests, but never all at once. At the shop of Charles Burney come Boswell, Johnson, Giovanni Viotti and his Stradivarius, Prince Orlov, and Burney's daughter Fanny, and in the course of the evening the famous Orlov diamond vanishes. Johnson's detection of the theft, which includes a premature invention of fingerprint analysis, makes for an entertaining tale.

"The Black Stone of Dr. Dee" is a juicy Gothick tale set at Horace Walpole's mansion Strawberry Hill in 1771, and kicks off with a real letter from Walpole in which he describes a puzzling break-in. De la Torre goes from there, creating a zesty mystery plot in which Boswell savors his terrors while spending a night in a supposedly haunted room, beset with all sorts of Gothick terrors. Criminals, or ghosts, seem to be after a crystal ball once owned by John Dee, or are they after something else entirely?

The real stone in question
"The Frantick Rebel" is a fun story, not really much of a mystery, but it pits Johnson (who famously groused against the American colonists' desire for freedom) against a noted American spy, Patience Wright. It's more of a chess game, or battle of wills, as Johnson knows Wright has important military secrets in her possession (the story is set in 1777) and he must prevent her from passing them on to another spy who will smuggle them out of the country. It's a fun caper, and Wright's ultimate deception of Johnson is a joyous comeuppance.
Wright can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery here in DC...
Stepping back in time to 1770, "Saint-Germain the Deathless" is another story that's less about mystery than a sort of adventure story in which he unmasks a cheat. A man shows up at a stylish party claiming to be the mysterious and notorious Count of St. Germain, who was famous for his claims to be an immortal alchemist (although I agree with Colin Wilson's assessment of him as a brilliant charlatan). He claims he can increase the size of diamonds...will a money-hungry young lady fall for it? And is he the "real" Count of St. Germain?

"The Missing Shakespeare Manuscript," set in Stratford-on-Avon during Garrick's Shakespeare jubilee of 1769, is all about the theft of a newly-discovered Shakespeare play, "Caractacus." Although the plot and characters are fictitious, it is inspired by William Henry Ireland and his infamous forgery of Shakespeare, Vortigern and Rowena.

The last story, "The Triple Lock'd Room", is a fiction set in 1775, inspired by a Hogarth etching, and containing a bunch of invented characters and one real person, James Bruce, a famous traveler and author. De la Torre got her idea from this famous picture, "The Toilette" which is part of his "Marriage a la Mode" series.

The boy in the lower right is featured in the story.
This was great fun, but you can see the early echoes of changes that came about in the series. But I'll talk about that later...

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Phantom Serenade, by Dvorak

This month we're at an outdoor concert. We've all gathered on the grass in the warm evening air, throwing down blankets and opening our picnic baskets as the sun slowly sets. Conversation goes happily back and forth over cornichons, marinated olives, cold roast chicken, potato salad, and fresh fruit. It's a lovely evening, and at times we feel like something in a painting by John Singer Sargent, or Thomas Wilmer Dewing. We've just finished off the cold cherry clafouti and started in on the champagne as the orchestra files in and after a few words from the conductor, the concert begins...

After the piece ends, there's some buzz in our group. One person saw some white-clad figures dancing in the grass nearby that vanished as soon as he glanced away and looked back. A young lady saw a shifty-looking man handing a small briefcase over to someone who seemed very nervous. One gentleman in our group has to assist a lady sitting nearby, who's suddenly faint and needs to be taken away...and we later learn she suffered a massive blood loss during the concert, without a drop to be seen. And we saw an elderly gentleman who seemed to have fallen asleep...only when we approached him after it was over, we found the knife-handle protruding from his chest.

Amazing, the adventures that can spring from an evening out!

(I've rather been in love with the idea of idyllic outdoor concerts lately. The photo at the top is from a concert at the Hagerstown City Park, near where I grew up, and the art in the videos is by Juan Gris. And if anyone wants to write an extension of this evening's adventures, I'd love to see it!)