Death in Nostalgia City

By Mark S. Bacon

Christie, Woolrich, Grafton and 37 more cook up short stories of crime and puzzlement

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Masterpieces of Mystery and Suspense
Compiled by Martin H. Greenberg
International Collectors Library
651 pages  1988
See below for prices and availability

Note to regular readers: This review originally appeared in the mystery books review section of this website that has now been merged into the weekly blog page. The blog will continue to include new reviews of mystery/suspense books and movies now that past pages have been incorporated here.

It’s the late 1950s, Ginger works in a dime-a-dance joint in a rundown part of town, and someone is killing taxi dancers.

When two police detectives show up at the dance hall one night, Ginger falls for the taller one.  “…if I’d had any dreams left, he coulda moved right into them.”

The cops only know the killer’s favorite song, the kind of ring he has on one finger and the bizarre way he leaves the dancers’ bodies.  With nothing more to go on, they try a stake out.   Luckily, Ginger is one sharp cookie and a step ahead of the police.  Question is, will she be a step ahead of the serial killer?masterpieces of mystery

This carefully crafted tale, The Dancing Detective, is classic noir by Cornell Woolrich and it’s one of 40 short stories in Masterpieces of Mystery and Suspense, a must for the library of every mystery and short story lover.  The stories are short, 10-20 pages, but they clearly demonstrate how a skilled mystery/suspense writer can weave a tale, create characters with depth and have you guessing right up to the end–all in a tiny package.

Woolrich’s story is a good example, combing rich characters and dialog with a snappy plot.   Aspiring mystery writers: read this story.  See how Woolrich creates a thick, gloomy atmosphere and tells us so much about his characters through the way they talk in addition to what they talk about.  Woolrich, like many of the authors in the anthology, were or are known as much for novels as well as short stories.  And again, like other authors, many of Woolrich’s stories became movies.  One of his most famous was Hitchcock’s 1954 Rear Window.

I discovered this collection of gems in a used book store.   It can be found easily online.  See the note at the end of this review.

Writers from Poe to Sue Grafton and Lawrence Block are represented here.  Stories of suspense, mystery and those featuring hard boiled detectives fill the pages.  The collection’s anthologist, Martin Greenberg, introduces each story with a brief biographical sketch of the author and a few words about the selection.

The usual suspects are all here: Dorothy Sayers, Earl Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Ross Macdonald, Ellery Queen, Dick Francis and John Dickson Carr.  A few writers not known for mysteries also provide fascinating stories.  Greenberg included Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King in the collection.

King’s Quitters, Inc. has Dick Morrison run into an old friend in an airport lounge, back when you could smoke in an airport.  The friend has quit the habit for good, he tells Morrison, with the help of an organization that guarantees its results.  In this suspenseful story, the method is the mystery and Morrison’s trials trying to stay off cigarettes can be most appreciated by ex-smokers.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Copper Beeches, Holmes and Watson are approached by a  governess who lives in a country house and works for an eccentric gentleman.  She becomes fearful when her employers ask her to pose for them in certain ways.

Frederick Forsyth’s contribution is, There Are No Snakes In Ireland, a creepy tale of revenge set in Ireland and India.

Rex Stout offers, Help Wanted, Male.  One of the longest entries in the collection, the story begins with a man who has received an anonymous letter saying he is about to die.  He goes to Nero Wolfe for help.  Archie Goodwin figures the man would need to look elsewhere:

“In the years I had been living in Nero Wolfe’s house…I had heard him tell at least fifty scared people, of all conditions and ages, that if someone had determined to kill them and was going to be stubborn about it, he would probably succeed.”

The next day, of course, the man is killed and the police want to know what Wolfe and Goodwin know about it.

If you’re looking for a collection of new crime and detection stories, obviously this isn’t it.  The book is 25 years old and many of the stories are decades older than that.  If, however, you want to be challenged and entertained by some of the best mystery and suspense writers who ever pounded a typewriter, this is the collection for you, if you can find it.

Note on availability:  The book is out of print, but used copies are available from many online sellers.   I purchased my hardbound copy (International Collectors Library edition, listed above) from our local library’s  book store.   A check of listings for the book at Amazon and other online stores yielded the names of three other publishers and page lengths.  Most common was an edition from St. Martin’s Press at 672 pages.  Minotaur and Doubleday are also listed as the publisher on some sites.   Most available copies are paperback going for $1 or less; shipping charges vary.

Next week: In the late 1940s, film director Harold Clurman attempted to create a cinema version of Deadline at Dawn, the noir suspense novel by Cornell Woolrich (writing as William Irish and reviewed here last week). Susan Hayward headed a cast of many notable character actors of the period. Did Clurman succeed in creating a class ‘A’ roman noir? See my review next time.

‘Deadline at Dawn’ is nonstop noir

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New York City has Bricky Coleman in its clutches. The small-town girl came to the city to become an actress, but it didn’t work out. Now she’s a dime-a-dance girl living in a dingy walk-up, bereft of spirit and hope. One evening she dances with Quinn Williams, another small-town transplant with equally dismal prospects. Somehow Quinn manages to erode Bricky’s layers of cynicism and suspicion and they become friends and allies in solving a dangerous puzzle.

Like most Cornell Woolrich novels, this one is dark and fast moving. The entire book occupies only a few early morning hours. Getting around a burglary and solving a murder stand in the way of the two young protagonists’ escape from their dismal lives.   An early coincidence and one or two later plot twists require a significant suspension of disbelief, but you sign on quickly because the dark corners of the city and its malevolent denizens are easily accepted as Woolrich draws you and his young protagonists into a race against the clock.Deadline at Dawn

The atmosphere is thick. Bricky looks up a dark street.   “Three anemic light-pools widely spaced down its seemingly endless length did nothing to dilute the gloom; they only pointed it up by giving contrast.” For Bricky, the main enemy isn’t a lurking murderer, it’s the city itself. It wants to possess her and grind her down. The young protagonist’s unhuman nemesis is similar to a lead character’s unnatural fear of the stars in the sky in Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Merciless, mysterious forces conspiring to thwart success is a common Woolrich theme.

Looking for a murderer so they can put a regrettable event in Quinn’s life behind them and escape to small-town paradise, the two split up and dash about the city at night. In back-and-forth chapters each amateur sleuth thinks he or she is on the right trail, but of course there are complications, dead ends and unexpected dangers. We move quickly from Quinn’s perilous encounter with a stranger who he follows around the city, to Bricky’s capture by a pair she thinks did the murder.

I have a copy of the first printing of the “Tower Books Motion Picture” edition illustrated with photos of the 1946 film based—very loosely—on the book. Instead of chapter numbers or titles, there are faces of a clock, and each chapter heading has the hands moving closer to the 6 a.m. deadline Quinn and Bricky are racing toward. That’s when they hope to catch the interstate bus and escape New York City. The photos from the movie don’t match the novel. Quinn is represented as a sailor—in uniform—by Bill Williams.

Note that Deadline at Dawn is an example of Woolrich’s practice of recycling scenes, characters and events from short stories into novels. The first scene of Bricky’s dance hall dysphoria is similar to the beginning of a short story, Dancing Detective, that focuses on another cynical taxi dancer with moxie. After this first scene, however, the novel departs completely from the short story.

Like so many Woolrich stories, Deadline at Dawn looks at the many faces of fear. “And the man who says he’s never been afraid is a liar,” Woolrich says. Later he tells us, “Fear rots the faculties.” Unlike the movie version, the novel maintains the pessimism, the dread and the eerie notion of noir.

Deadline at Dawn
Cornell Woolrich (writing as William Irish)
The World Publishing Co. 1946
219 pages

Now available in a new edition from Centipede Press
300 pages   $14.52

Hyperlinks:

Centipede Press
Deadline at Dawn (film)

A new look at a classic murder story

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Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Vintage Books    564 pages
$17.95

Two women are hacked to death with an axe and some valuables stolen from their apartment.   The killer, Rodion Raskolnikov, is at first trapped in the apartment when two men knock at the door and refuse to go away.   After a suspenseful few minutes Raskolnikov manages to escape unseen.   The mystery then becomes not who did it, because most of the book is written from the killer’s point of view, but which of two forces will ultimately be his undoing, the police or his dark, deranged mind that leads him to alternately wander the streets at night or hold up in his claustrophobic apartment while suffering fever, fainting and fantastic dreams.

After the murder, which takes place in mid-nineteenth century St. Petersburg, Russia, Raskolnikov’s mother and beautiful sister Dunya arrive from the country followed by the sister’s manipulative fiancée who Raskolnikov insults at their first meeting.  Raskolnikov’s sister is also pursued by a lecherous former employer bent on having Dunya one way or the other.  Soon a casual alcoholic acquaintance of Raskolnikov dies and sends his family into hysterics while the drunk’s self-effacing daughter, who has become a prostitute to support the family, catches Raskolnikov’s eye.

In this edition’s foreword, translator Richard Pevear compares the book to the Hindu parable of the blind men describing an elephant each by touching a different part, and indeed the subplots mentioned above head in different directions all held together by Raskolnikov.  So rather than explore all of Dostoevsky’s complex characters,  his overlapping themes, historical and literary allusions, let’s look at the book simply as a murder story.Crime and Punishment cover

Even though we know whodunit, the murder investigation and the exploration of Raskolnikov’s psyche is anything but straightforward.  A handsome young man in his early 20s, Raskolnikov is an impoverished, sickly former law student dressed in rags.  He lives in a garret or tiny flat and is afraid to run into his landlady because he’s behind on the rent.   He develops a scheme to kill and rob an elderly pawnbroker which he does early in the novel.  He also kills the pawnbroker’s sister who drops in unexpectedly.   The crime accomplished, the majority of the book focuses on the punishment which takes place largely in Raskolnikov’s head.

While he may regret the crime for what it may cost him, he doesn’t regret taking the life of someone he considers worthless.  Getting rid of the miserable crone was a favor to society.  The sister simply became, in modern vernacular, collateral damage.  Taking a view that separates mankind into the “ordinary and the extraordinary” Raskolnikov feels he is above most men and that the extraordinary ones may transcend conventional morality if the betterment of society is at stake.  As it quickly becomes obvious, Raskolnikov is far from a level-headed polemic.  Either his wacky moral beliefs are not enough to assuage his seeping guilt, or he’s on the verge of madness and all bets based on logic–even a twisted one–are off.  As mentioned, he wanders the streets having extended conversations with himself about his crime, his pursuers and a strange notion that since he’s committed a crime he is now free to do good deeds for others, for society.  But even when he donates some of his limited money, he seems to reinforce his appearance of derangement.

Hot on Raskolnikov’s trail is Porfiry Petrovich, a police detective who seems to understand the complex psychological aspects of the young man’s motivations.  A pudgy official of 35, his method of dealing with Raskolnikov is essentially to give him enough rope as the crime cliché says, but perhaps this method was not as commonplace when the book was published in 1866.  In a masterful scene slightly beyond the halfway point of the book,  Raskolnikov is summoned to Petrovich’s office where the detective lays out, in theoretical terms, what a perfectly solved murder case might involve, while he professes to be an awkward investigator.

“…suppose there is evidence sir, [he tells Raskolnikov] but evidence, my dear, is mostly double-ended, and I am an investigator and therefore, I confess, a weak man: I would like to present my investigation with, so to speak, mathematical clarity; I would like to get a hold of a piece of evidence that’s something like two times two is four! Something like direct and indisputable proof!  But if I were to lock him [a suspect] up at the wrong time–even though I’m sure it was him–I might well deprive myself of the means of his further incrimination.”

Petrovich even admits his interrogation techniques are clumsy, but he uses a telling metaphor.

“Tell me, really, who among all the accused, even the most cloddish peasant doesn’t know, for instance, that they [investigators] will first lull him with unrelated questions (to use your happy expression) and then suddenly stun him right on the head, with an axe…”

Again talking theoretically, Petrovich tells Raskolnikov that in some cases letting a suspect think that he knows his inner secrets and that he, the suspect, is being followed day and night will push the suspected person into making fatal mistakes.

Although Petrovich seems to be talking abstractedly, his message unnerves Raskolnikov to the point where he tells himself he’d like to “hurl himself at Porfiry and strangle him on the spot.”   Near the climax of the scene, Raskolnikov pounds his fist on the table and shouts, “Don’t taunt me!  I won’t have it!”

The case against Raskolnikov is not assured, however, compounded by another person’s confessing to the crime and the possibility that Raskolnikov may be completely loony so that the “cat and mouse game” (Petrovich’s words) proceeds with unexpected turns throughout the novel.

If anything in this book sounds familiar, it’s because mystery and suspense writers have had nearly 150 years to read Dostoevsky and benefit from his insights, copy his style or simply lift ideas.  The book is filled with what has become standard detective story fare: the killer returning to the scene of the crime, a protracted search for the best place to hide the loot, paranoia over being followed, frantic attempts to remove all blood stains, confiding the crime in secret to a girlfriend (a hooker with a heart of gold), the criminal’s belief that he’s somehow entitled to his plunder and a detective seeking a confession.  Petrovich’s roundabout interrogation of Raskolnikov sounds remarkably like the bumbling yet savvy Lieutenant Columbo (Peter Falk) from the TV series of the 1970s and 80s.

It would be a mistake to call this the original noir or hardboiled detective book, but the mood and the settings are decidedly grim.  The characters populate cramped, oppressive rooms decorated with faded, pealing wallpaper and frayed furniture.  Many are dressed in ragged clothes, have little or no money and, with a few exceptions, bleak prospects.   Suspicion, shame and fear are common and the dirty city streets are filled with falling-down drunks.  One particularly dark scene describes a horse being beaten to death in the street in front of cheering onlookers when it fails to pull an intentionally overloaded wagon.

Raskolnikov’s extended, abstract inner dialogs can become a little mind-numbing, and complicating the read is the custom of Russians to be called by their last names sometimes, or their first two names, or sometimes a nickname.  Within the same paragraph a character can be referred to by several different names–a challenge to English-speaking readers.  These issues aside, it’s easy to see why this novel is a towering classic.   It’s a powerful story, with complex characters, a strong emotional–and intellectual base–and an engrossing blueprint for the crime novels that followed it.

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E-book notes  This print version of the novel has many useful footnotes explaining aspects of Russian culture and language, historical and geographical references, plus relevant elements of the author’s background.  It also contains a foreword by one of the two renown translators and a useful character list with a guide to pronunciation of the names.

This novel also appears in an e-book collection of all of the author’s work, translated by Constance Garnett, that was available for the Kindle.  All of the novels were combined in the file, making the percentage read gage and word search all but useless.  According to the Amazon Web site, Dostoevsky’s books, also translated by Garnett, are now available separately–and free.

Cinema notes  According to imdb.com, there are no fewer than 30 Crime and Punishment films, many produced in other countries.  The most recent US production was a 2002 film starring Vanessa Redgrave, John Hurt and Crispin Glover.  A 1935 version starred Edward Arnold as Porfiry Petrovich and Peter Lorre as Raskolnikov.

Note for longtime readers/followers In revising my website there was no room for a separate page dedicated to mystery reviews.  I will continue to review mystery and suspense books (and and few films) but they will be contained in the blog page.  This review originally appeared in the book review section of this site.

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