As any fan of Simon Templar, the Saint, should know by now, this entry in the prolific Max Allan Collins’ Disaster Series (featuring crime writers solving murder mysteries in the midst of infamous catastrophes—i.e., Agatha Christie in The London Blitz Murders, Edgar Rice Burroughs in The Pearl Harbor Murders) has the debonair and witty Leslie Charteris, creator of the forever-modern Robin Hood, casting a monocled eye on suspicious goings-on aboard the starcrossed Zeppelin’s final flight. Feverishly paced, with characters both amusing and sinister, and dialogue snappy enough to have come from a Howard Hawks movie of the day, this audio is a sheer delight, enhanced in no small way by Simon Vance’s superb narration, providing spot on accents from the veddy British to Germanic grunts and all nationalities in between.
James Anderson’s lighthearted puzzle mysteries both parodied and paid homage to the classic English Country House Mystery.
James Anderson’s lasting contribution to mystery fiction consists of three novels about English house-party murders, all taking place in the same country house, Lord Burford’s historic Alderley, and all investigated by the same easily-overlooked but sneakily clever policeman, Inspector Wilkins: The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy (1975; US 1977), The Affair of the Mutilated Mink Coat (1981), and The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks (2003). Clearly reflecting a love of the classical puzzles of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, unapologetically artificial and light-hearted, they managed both to parody and to provide genuine examples of the traditional British detective novel between World Wars.
James Anderson (1936-2007) was born in Wiltshire of Welsh parents and lived most of his life near Cardiff. He had a history degree from University of Reading and listed as pre-novel-writing jobs “salesman, copywriter and freelance journalist…. His interests include[d] cricket and vintage films and he [was] a committed Christian.” He was unmarried “though not from any lack of inclination.”
Not notably prolific, with 13 books over a career of more than thirty years, Anderson did not start out as a traditional puzzle-spinner. When he entered the mystery field in the late 1960s, the classical detective story was out of favor, to put it mildly. True, Agatha Christie was still writing and making the bestseller list; Golden Agers like Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen were still producing new books; P.D. James and Emma Lathen had both emerged in the early 1960s. But with the great success of Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Len Deighton, and others, international thrillers were in the ascendency. One or two mysterious deaths, ran the popular wisdom, were not enough to intrigue the jaded reader; the fate of the world had to be hanging by a thread in every book. Longtime mystery fans read spy fiction because that’s what you were supposed to read, and writers new to the field concluded that was what you were supposed to write.
So Anderson started with spy stuff, and he was good at it. His first novel, Assassin (1969; US 1971), introduced Mikael Petros, citizen of an unnamed European country, who took on the title role reluctantly and under duress. In The Abolition of Death (1974; US 1975), an effectively plotted and written semi-science-fictional thriller full of Hitchcockian suspense set-pieces, Petros must effect the escape of a scientist who has developed a drug that will retard aging and may eventually make immortality possible. The potential ramifications of such a discovery are explored on practical and moral grounds, and the novel has a strong religious undertone.
The first line of Blood-Stained Egg Cosy might have suggested Anderson was still in the land of international intrigue, albeit of an earlier time. One character asks another, “How well do you know Adolf Hitler?” But it’s soon clear this is quite a different kind of mystery. Most promising for traditionalist nostalgics are the list of characters, followed by a floor plan of the first floor of Alderley. Many of the house party guests are introduced in short scenes at the beginning of the book, very much in the Agatha Christie tradition. They include a wealthy Texan and his secretary, a poor young woman who recently lost her salesgirl job, a Member of Parliament (brother to the Earl of Burford), a retired Naval officer, a foreign envoy and his aide, and a “young man about town.” There’s also a butler on hand to draw suspicion and the menacing figure of a society jewel thief known as the Wraith. Other familiar elements include the host’s gun collection, a secret passage, the prospect of 13 at dinner, stormy weather, and a gathering of the suspects at the end, but they are played with a completely straight face and worked out with satisfying complexity and generous clues.
When the local cop appears on the scene almost halfway through the book, he proves to be easily underestimated in the manner of Columbo. A self-described “simple country bobby,” Detective Inspector Wilkins is somewhat in the mode of Leo Bruce’s Sergeant Beef, but without that character’s underlying arrogance. His frequent tagline: “I’m not sanguine.”
When I reviewed this book for EQMM in June 1977, editor Queen (Fred Dannay) thought me excessive in my praise. (That’s okay—he didn’t always see eye to eye with Anthony Boucher, either.) I wondered if my pleasure at encountering an intricate, pure puzzle novel caused me to overrate it, and also whether Anderson could possibly repeat the trick. Vindication came with Mutilated Mink Coat, in which murder and Wilkins return to Alderley, this time with Scotland Yard’s pretentious and arrogant St. John Algood also on the case. Reminding me in his apparently low self-esteem of Richard and Frances Lockridge’s Nathan Shapiro, Wilkins again got the job done. Though 39 Cufflinks was not published until 22 years later, I suspect it was written shortly after the others. It is another gem.
Anderson would write several nonseries books—Additional Evidence and Angel of Death are notable for their clever plotting—and a couple of Murder She Wrote novelizations of TV scripts, before Donald Bain got the permanent job of creating new cases for Jessica Fletcher. But it’s those three Inspector Wilkins cases that are his principal legacy in the mystery genre—and a continuing joy to readers.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #120.
Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946). Photo: Columbia Pictures.
Recently, I had the sublime experience of visiting the famous cine-paradise, the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York—a place I’d heard about for years and always wanted to visit. Invited up there by Jared Case, the Head of Cataloging and Access at its Motion Picture Department, I got a sneak peek at many of the facility’s wonders, including gorgeous Hollywood studio stills, posters, press books, and other archival items.
A distinct highlight was a glorious and haunting painted plaster mask made of Marlene Dietrich’s face, so delicate and exquisite I could barely look at it. I had always believed those cheek bones of hers were mostly Hurrell-lit fantasies. As it turns out, those planar majesties were God-given.
The occasion of my visit was to introduce a screening of Gilda (1946), and it became the first time I ever saw this film on a big screen—a gleaming print that swathed us in satiny black as if we were Gilda’s gloved fingers.
The story is simple. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), a ne’er-do-well gambler, hustles himself into a casino job and a fast friendship with the mysterious Ballin Mundson (George Mac ready). But everything changes when Ballin returns from a trip with his beautiful wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth), with whom Johnny once shared a tumultuous romance that ended with the couple hating each other. Ballin charges Johnny with watching over Gilda, who resents both men’s obsessive and frequently cruel attempts to control her. The ensuing love triangle is, at turns, violent, tortured, and deeply romantic.
I first saw Gilda as a young girl, age nine or ten, on television, and I remember being enraptured. It seemed so glamorous—the glittering casino, the evening gowns and tuxedos, the exotic Buenos Aires locale. Beautiful Rita, handsome Glenn Ford, and their grand romance.
And, like everyone else I was transfixed during the famous scene of Gilda, in that iconic black dress, doing a gloved striptease to the lowdown tune, “Put the Blame on Mame.”
I remember watching her in that strapless dress, tight as a second skin, and wondering how she could keep it up—the aerodynamics of it—it signified to me the magical properties of womanhood.
I distinctly remember thinking, “This is what life is.”
In college, I saw the film again—and it was another a revelatory experience, but of a different kind.
I sat there, waiting for my childhood rapture—waiting to slip into the sumptuous, romantic story again. What unfurled instead was a dark, tortured world.
I realized that Gilda isn’t the center of the film at all, but is instead a glistening object. Much like the openly symbolic sword cane Ballin carries (which he calls “his little friend”), she is something to be passed between the two men, Ballin and Johnny, whose deepest feelings are, of course, for each other. I saw for the first time the dark, nihilistic thread (or zipper) through the satin center of the movie and it became even more fascinating, richer…. I felt like I had grown into it. It had showed me about adulthood, just not the adulthood I’d imagined.
Gilda presents a world of complexity, where feelings are never simple, every happy-ever-after has a price, and none of us completely know ourselves or what we’re capable of.
Love, in Gilda—or, perhaps more correctly, desire—is about power, powerlessness, control, and lack of control. We see this through the movie’s obsessive, self-conscious voyeurism—everyone seems to be watching each other, spying through windows and blinds, peering around corners, or through masks, but rarely ever touching.
The movie’s dark heart seems summed up in Johnny’s breathless voiceover, confessing, as he leaves Gilda, his old flame, with her husband Ballin, his new one:
It was all I could do to walk away. I wanted to go back up in that room and hit her. What scared me was, I-I wanted to hit him too. I wanted to go back and see them together with me not watching.
I wanted to know.
As slick and big-studio a film noir as it is, Gilda is noir to the rotten core. Because love here is a curse, a burden, and a weapon (cane, whip, glove). Love is about pain.
Love and hate, desire and contempt are not opposites at all but are in fact utterly inseparable. Or one and the same. As Ballin famously tells Gilda, “Hate can be a very exciting emotion ....There’s a heat in it that one can feel. Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.”
It’s chilling when Ballin says this. Later, when Hayworth’s Gilda echoes that line, in a desperate whisper, it may be the sexiest and saddest moment I’ve ever seen in film.
Watching Gilda a few weeks ago in preparation for the evening at Eastman House, a whole new shimmering layer peeked through.
Yes, I had an added appreciation for actors I’ve come to love, such as the delicious Joseph Calleia as the understanding cop, Obregon. But most of all I saw in Hayworth’s performance what I’d missed before, its pathos, her awareness that she matters less as a person than as a totem these two men wield to show their power, their loyalty, their complicated feelings towards each other.
Even the famous “Put the Blame on Mame” striptease scene now seems very different to me. Preceded by a musical number where she is precise, formal, ebullient, and quite feminine, in this number she is ballsy-burlesque, skittering raggedly by the end into something like desperation. Until it is that.
“Put the Blame on Mame” is, after all, a song about how a woman is to blame for the great Chicago Fire, the San Francisco earthquake, everything—just as Gilda’s beauty becomes the excuse for every act of depravity and control in the movie…she is a fantasy projection, not a real woman.
It’s all the more poignant given Hayworth’s tortured personal life, exploited by her father, her husbands, and Harry Cohn, head of Columbia. I hesitate even to quote the much-overquoted Hayworth line, reflecting on her own sad romantic history, “Men go to bed with Gilda, but they wake up with me.” Watching the film now, it seems clear that Gilda herself might say the same thing.
So in fact, I think now my nine-year-old self was getting a peek into the adult world, its beauty and its dark seams too.
Spoiler-alert: people, especially noir aficionados, always talk about the ending as being the one blemish on the movie; the fact that the production code demanded we learn that Gilda wasn’t the promiscuous adulteress that Johnny—and we—are led to believe.
But, “happy ending” aside (who, after having watched them tear at each other for 110 minutes, really believes these two will go onto a happy life together?), I love that Johnny is wrong. I love that we learn Gilda is innocent of the charges. Trapped between two men who cannot reckon with their own desires, she is the great beating heart of the movie. Guilty of nothing, of everything.
Megan Abbott is the Edgar Award-winning author of crime novels including Dare Me, The End of Everything, Bury Me Deep, Queenpin, The Song Is You, and Die a Little as well as a nonfiction book on hardboiled fiction and film noir.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #120.
John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham, and the Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
John Dickson Carr and Margery Allingham
In March 1949, John Dickson Carr was living in Mamaroneck, Connecticut. Margery Allingham, a friend from the Detection Club in London, was in the United States to publicize her latest book, More Work for the Undertaker. Carr presented Allingham and her husband, Philip (“Pip”) Youngman Carter, with a copy of his newly published The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and inscribed it as “Aunt Sally.”
I would like to approach the importance of this inscription somewhat obliquely. Nowadays, collectors often prefer to have only the author’s signature on their book, without any additional remarks—no note from the author about to whom the book is inscribed, no date, in fact no additional writing of any kind—only an autograph, usually on the title page beneath the author’s printed name, which is crossed out with a single line (only the gauche would use two lines thus making an X over the name). When I asked Colin Dexter to inscribe my copy of Last Seen Wearing, he told me that it was one of his early books and I therefore should prefer having only his signature. I insisted (successfully) that it be inscribed to me by name.
But it was not always thus. Frederic Dannay, in an early issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, described the variety of autographed books, and his article was reprinted in In the Queen’s Parlor by Ellery Queen (1957). Dannay said that a simple signature is the least interesting. Better is a signature and a message, but without a recipient. Then come inscribed copies with autograph, recipient, message, and date. Books in the third category vary in interest depending on the identity of the recipient and the significance of the message (it’s also more desirable to have the inscription dated near the publication date).
Margery Allingham's personal copy of The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Harper & Brothers, 1949) inscribed and presented to her and her husband by John Dickson Carr. (From the Mystery Scene library.)
The best inscriptions tell a story—or hint at a story. When John Dickson Carr presented a copy of his second novel, The Lost Gallows, to his grandmother he included a note that it was in memory of times that he “told her better stories than this.” What stories? Carr didn’t say, but Carr fans have every right to speculate. To take another example, when Vincent Starrett inscribed a copy of The Unique Hamlet “To A. J. Morin after two glasses of cognac,” we can certainly wonder whether the cognac put Starrett in a generous mood, or if the gift was a planned part of a convivial evening. Starrett would write other intriguing inscriptions, for instance: “For Scott Cunningham some years after publication, and some hours before daylight.”
Sometimes authors present copies of their books to other writers, and often these inscriptions are the most interesting of all. I don’t know whether Carr met Pip Carter in the 1930s, when Carter was designing dust jackets. At least five of the British editions of Carr’s books have Carter dust jackets. But Carr certainly knew Carter’s wife Margery Allingham through The Detection Club in London. The club had been founded in 1930 by Anthony Berkeley and included luminaries as charter members—G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, G.D. H. and M. Cole, Freeman Wills Crofts, R. Austin Freeman, John Rhode, Dorothy L. Sayers, and others. Margery Allingham became a member in 1934, and two years later Carr became the first American member (though living in England), and quickly was chosen as the Honorary Secretary.
Carr’s memories of the Detection Club and its members tended to be rather bibulous. He later wrote about “a somewhat drunken weekend with Margery and Pip Carter at their home in Essex,” and that may help explain why the inscription from Carr is not easy to read. After considerable help from my family, I interpret it (perhaps translate it would be more accurate) as:
“With the kindest regards to Mr & Mrs Philip Y. Carter and a happy and safe return to dear old London. Aunt Sally, March 15, 1949”
(I have no doubt that I have misread several words...)
Which leads us back to the fascination of author inscriptions, especially when there is a hint of an untold story. Why did Carr call himself “Aunt Sally”? Aunt Sally was (and still remains in parts of England) a pub and fairground game—and readers who recall The Punch and Judy Murders know of Carr’s interest in fairground amusements. According to an 1866 account, “Aunt Sally is a big black doll on a stick, with a pipe in her mouth, and an orange or some toy for a prize, which you win by hitting her with a stick if you are lucky.” By extension an Aunt Sally is a person or object to throw at, to make a subject of ridicule or criticism, which is often unfair. Was there a joke of some sort between Carr and Allingham making him an Aunt Sally?
We shall probably never know—but always be intrigued.
Two of the book jackets that Pip Carter designed for the Heinemann editions of John Dickson Carr’s “Carter Dickson” mysteries.
John Dickson Carr was chosen by the Doyle family to write the authorized biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and given unprecedented access to the author’s papers. Carr had worked with Adrian Conan Doyle, the youngest son of the famous author, on radio plays of the Professor Challenger stories. Adrian was delighted with the result, which was a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. The two later collaborated on stories that were published in the 1952 collection The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes.
The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, by John Dickson Carr, Harper & Brothers, 1949
Artists in Crime: An Illustrated Survey of Crime Fiction First Edition Dust Wrappers 1920-1970, by John Cooper and B.A. Pike, Scolar Press (UK), 1995
John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles, by Douglas G. Greene, Otto Penzler Books, 1995
The Adventures of Margery Allingham, by Julia Jones, Golden Duck, 1999
Douglas G. Greene is the author of the award-winning biography John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995). He is also the publisher of Crippen & Landru.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #128.