Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Maigret and the Headless Corpse by Georges Simenon


The first week of this month - which included Election Day - required a good, calm crime story, a book that before opening it a reader knows the mystery will be solved and order restored. 


It called for a visit with methodical, introspective Chief Superintendent Jules Maigret, author Georges Simenon’s fictional Paris police detective.


The mystery in his 1955 novel, Maigret and the Headless Corpse, as the title explains, begins with the discovery of a dismembered body in a canal. All the parts of the murdered man are recovered, except the head. Based on the medical examiner’s findings and the section of Paris in which the body was discovered, Maigret quickly comes up with a possible identity of the man and a possible suspect.


The suspect is the man’s wife. As Maigret learns about her, a second suspect and then a third come into focus. The wife is a puzzle to him. She is a woman who seems numb to the world and Maigret spends a considerable amount of time figuring out what makes her tick. His process is fascinating.


For a man who wrote at breakneck speed, Simenon’s novel has an almost leisurely pace.


Maigret and the Headless Corpse is considered one of Simenon's best, and I agree, although I have only read a fraction of his 390 books. Included in that output are his 75 Maigret novels.


(For more posts on books, see Todd Mason’s blog.)

(And, if you haven’t already, please see my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Twenty Plus Two by Frank Gruber

Frank Gruber’s 1961 novel, Twenty Plus Two, is a fast-paced mystery about Tom Alder, an unlicensed sleuth whose specialty is finding missing heirs to great fortunes.


No one asks him, but the heir he is searching for in this book is Doris Delaney, who, 22 years earlier, disappeared from a girls’ boarding school and was never heard from again.


Was she abducted? Was she killed?


The infamous disappearance made headlines around the country.


Alder’s interest in the case is piqued when a woman is murdered and among her effects are a couple of old newspaper clippings about the Doris Delaney case.


Alder is vaguely interested in who the murdered woman was and who would want to kill her. He is more interested in why the woman had clippings about Doris Delaney.


The mystery leads Alder from his home town of Los Angeles to New York, then to Chicago, and more. Along the way, he encounters some beautiful women and a notorious con man who wants Alder to find his missing brother.


As in many classic hard-boiled mysteries, the two cases are connected, but Gruber cleverly strings the reader along to the end before revealing the connection.


Gruber constructs his story so well, planting red herrings, adding unexpected twists and turns, and pacing the whole thing so swiftly that obvious questions are forgotten as Alder barrels ahead on his search.


Frank Gruber (1904-1969) may be better known for his Westerns than his mysteries (at least that was my introduction to him). He started his career writing for the pulps in the 1930s. His memoir about those days, The Pulp Jungle (which I reviewed here), is a terrific read. He also wrote scripts in Hollywood from the 1940s to the 1960s.


(For more posts on books, see Todd Mason’s blog.)


(Also, please check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

Monday, October 26, 2020

Suspenseful horror film Corruption starring Peter Cushing

Never a big fan of the Hammer horror movies, it was not until recently that I was won over by the work of actor Peter Cushing.

Last year, I saw him in the 1961 bank robbery film “Cash on Demand” where he played the stiff-necked branch manager. Then, last week I saw him in a terrific little gore-fest called “Corruption” from 1968, which is not a Hammer film.

Cushing plays an eminent surgeon in love with a model, played by Sue Lloyd. An accident he causes damages her face. The doctor locks himself away and obsessively researches medical remedies to restore the young woman’s beauty. 


He comes up with an unproven theory but will need to the pituitary gland of a recently deceased young woman. There happens to be such a corpse at his hospital. 


But the procedure turns out to be a temporary fix and the model’s repaired skin starts to decay. 


The only solution for a true cure is to get the gland of a living woman. So the obsessed surgeon goes out and kills a young prostitute. This seems to work, at first, but it too fails and the doc must kill again. 

This weird little movie will keep viewers glued to the screen through the bloodshed and the crazy violent ending involving a runaway surgical laser.

Cushing plays the doctor to the hilt and completely straight, never winking at the audience to let them know he was a well trained theater actor before finding his niche in horror pictures. 


“Corruption” is a guilty pleasure.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Ghosts, Guns, Guilt & Gambling in “The Queen of Spades”

Alexander Pushkin's novelette, "The Queen of Spades," reads like a modern story which is one of the many surprises in this nearly 200-year-old work.

His storytelling is sharp and to the point and packs a wallop at the end.

It goes like this:

A group of young Russian army officers are playing cards when one of them tells how his grandmother – a countess – was a heavy gambler and when she was young lost a small fortune at the tables. She struck a sort of bargain with a creepy old dude – a noble himself – and he taught her the secret to winning at faro.

A quick aside here: I have only the vaguest idea of how the card game faro is played. The only other place I have heard it mentioned is in books and movies about the Old West. Readers do not have to master the fine points to enjoy “The Queen of Spades.”

Back to the story: One of the young officers at the card game hears the tale and plots to get the secret for himself. He convinces a young woman who lives in the old countess’ mansion that he is in love with her. One night she arranges to let him into the house to visit her. But the officer goes straight to the old lady’s bedroom and begs her to tell him the secret. She refuses, he demands, and finally he threatens her with a gun. The old lady dies of fright.

The officer feels kind of guilty. He attends her funeral and while looking into the casket, the old lady smiles at him. That night the countess appears to him and tells him the secret. The greedy young officer heads for the nearest casino. There he plays to win using the secret and there he gets his comeuppance thanks to the old countess.

The story has the kind of pace and surprise ending of an O. Henry short story, or one by de Maupassant. Somerset Maugham wrote a few like this, too.

The end leaves more questions than answers. Did the old countess cause the calamity at the end? Or was it the young officer’s own obsessive greed? Did the spirit actually visit the officer? Or was it a dream?

I will let someone else answer those questions. For me, “The Queen of Spades” was a ripping good story.

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) was a Russian poet, playwright, novelist and short story writer. He is considered the founder of modern Russian literature. “The Queen of Spades” was first published in Moscow in 1834. My copy of the story (from Kindle for 99 cents) does not list a translator, but I believe it was done by Margaret Sutherland Edwards. She was the wife of a British journalist who wrote about Russia. Her translation of the Pushkin story was published in 1901 and it is a must read.

(For more posts on books, see Todd Mason’s blog.)

(And take a look at my book, Lyme Depot, too. Thanks.)

Monday, October 12, 2020

Clooney and J.Lo in Out Of Sight from the novel by Elmore Leonard

Saturday was gloomy and rainy so the perfect movie to watch was “Out Of Sight.”

We had seen it before, 22 years ago when it was out on the big screen, and we enjoyed seeing it again.

Enjoyed is the right word for this romantic comedy crime film starring George Clooney as a smooth, charming bank robber who never uses a gun, and Jennifer Lopez as a U.S. Marshal who does.

Clooney’s Jack Foley escapes from prison and is met by his crime buddy, Buddy, played by Ving Rhames. But the escape plan goes sideways when Lopez’s Marshal Karen Sisco gets in the way.

The two stars meet cute by being stuffed into the trunk of a car and chatting while Buddy drives. They separate and Karen joins the team hunting for Jack. His trail leads from Florida to Detroit where he plans to rip off a fortune in diamonds from a rich crook he met in prison.

Other hoods and supporting characters come into the story and are memorably played by a large cast, including a lot of well-known actors like Don Cheadle, Catherine Keener, Dennis Farina, Albert Brooks, Luis Guzman, Viola Davis, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, and a hilarious Steve Zahn.

The whole thing is a hard to relate in any sensible way because the source material was Elmore Leonard’s novel of the same name, and few can tell a wacky, twist-filled tale like Leonard.

Steven Soderbergh directed the picture and went on to make many more big movies with big movie stars, some serious like “Traffic,” others fun like the Ocean films.

Seeing “Out Of Sight” made me want to re-watch other films based on Leonard stories like “Jackie Brown” and “Get Shorty.” But mostly, it reminded me that I have not read any Elmore in a long time.