Search This Blog

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Six Cases of Murder by Henry Slesar


You can imagine Young Jamie -- when he was still Disappointing James -- basking in delight at the existence of a murder mystery board game. As I'm sure I don't need to tell you, the long-lasting board game is basically Happy Families with murder, and it's been around for decades. In fact, it was originally pitched as Agatha Christie -- the Game, and my very first blog post (on my personal website) was on the game's subversive potentials.

As an undergraduate, I became semi-famous for my Cluedo parties. Anywhere from 6 to 36 people would roll up, dressed in the various Cluedo colours. We'd drink appropriately coloured drinks, play however many simultaneous games, and watch the film Clue (which, to my mind, is a sub-par version of Murder by Death, but, hey, you can't be choosy when people are finally letting you geek out). It all ended when I moved to Exeter and tried to host one such party. At Chester, my friends were mostly churchy people, who were contractually obliged to enjoy each other's company. At Exeter, my friends were mostly members of the LGBTQ+, who were contractually obliged to sleep with and hate each other. Not the right crowd.

So, as I was writing an MA project on Cluedo (a novella called Anyone's Game... there'll be a revamped version on Amazon later this year), I took a private retreat in the world of the game. I discovered, on YouTube, an old ITV series of the same name. Go and lose several hours ploughing through it, and you'll thank me. The premise is similar to Simon Brett's Radio 4 show, Foul Play, except here we have the same six suspects in various different set-ups. Each episode, a new story was played out, in which a stranger to Tudor Manor is murdered, and the two panellists have to question the suspects to discover whodunit, how, and where. I particularly remember June Whitfield playing Mrs White as a drunk, and Joanna Lumley playing Mrs Peacock as... Joanna Lumley.

Last week, whilst charity shopping with a budget of exactly £1, I came across a big old bin of board games for 10p each. Among these games were several mystery jigsaws. You might know the sort of thing -- a little booklet gives you a mystery, and you piece together a jigsaw which contains a visual clue before reading the solution. There was, in the 1990s, a whole set of Agatha Christie games which were frankly terrible. Oddly, the best one I've ever played was a Murder, She Wrote jigsaw, which was lying around in a holiday barn in Wales. However, two of the jigsaws in the charity shop bore the Cluedo  brand: these were a completely new thing for me, and I was delighted to find them. So, for 20p, I snapped them up and set to work.

In some games, the solution comes in a sealed envelopes, more often it's in mirror writing at the back of the book. However, the Cluedo jigsaws have a unique 'special Cluedo magnifying glass' (effectively, a lump of plastic with a red filter), which turns white things red -- the solution is printed on a mottled red and white surface so that when you run the magnifying glass over it, all becomes clear (see image). Neat.

Opening the box, I was surprised to see that the story was by Henry Slesar, a well-known American genre-writer, whose Enter Murderers (1960) will be reviewed on this blog later in the year. The game is clearly supposed to tie in with the TVseries (either the ITV version or the American one) because the characters all have the same Christian names as on the screen -- Jonathan Green, Vivienne Scarlett -- and photographs of actors are used. The timeframe also adds up: this game was released in 1993.

The mystery is okay, but not great: so, Dr Black owns Tudor Close and invites these six guests, all of whom he loves and all of whom want him dead. Miss Scarlett wants to inherit the property and turn it into a beauty spa; Colonel Mustard wants to inherit it and turn it into an old boys' club, and so on. There are some entertaining bits of dialogue in the brief story, particularly between Mrs Peacock and Miss Scarlett, and Mrs White and... everyone. During the first night of the weekend, Dr Black is murdered, but by whom? Perhaps the six suspects' suitcases hold the answer (... geddit, 'Six Cases of Murder'? Sigh!).

The jigsaw is hard to do. It took me four days -- and I'm currently experiencing a bout of depression, so expected to hurtle through it in two or less -- and there are each of the suitcases has a similar pattern, making the challenge rather wonderful. As for the mystery itself, I think it's silly -- but perhaps that's because I didn't solve it! I spotted the killer (the only character who is described in the booklet in any specific detail; i.e. the only character who has interests beyond those implied by their character description) but not the 'how'. The evidence is there in the picture, but I think that unless you have it explained to you, it's impossible to see that way. In fact, the incriminating item actually looks like part of a suitcase.

All in all, the experience was great fun, but I felt very slightly cheated at the end. Before sampling the other Cluedo jigsaw, I'm going to have a go at one of the marvellously early-90s standalone jigsaws sourced from the same bin (Death by Diet, if I recall correctly. Enjoy picturing the bouffanted models in the photos).

Friday, 2 March 2018

Game Night (Warner Bros)

The trailer for Game Night popped up while I was rabbit-holing through YouTube and it was one of those ads that I couldn’t skip. So, like an obedient puppy, I watched it and thought, ‘That sounds interesting, I wonder when it’s out’. Google told me it would be out on Friday 2 March – the date I’m writing this post.

The last two weeks have been tough for me, both mentally and physically, and the sub-tolerable weather hasn’t helped. Nothing’s happened, I’m just susceptible to depression and had the flu – but, yeah, I felt like something to cheer me up and Alan was getting a bit blue from a weird and unstructured half-day of teaching in the snow. So, we lumbered onto a bus and made our way to the nearest cinema.

I wasn’t expecting much from Game Night, although Googling had revealed that it’s got unusually good reviews for a light escapist comedy. Even the filmmakers seem surprised by how well it’s doing. There were only six people in the cinema, including us, but that was probably because we arrived bang in the middle of a snow blizzard. Over in the States, Game Night grossed $17,000,000 in its opening weekend. That’s more than I make in a month! (Actually, it’s more than I’d make in far too many thousands of months… weep.)

One critic has described Game Night as ‘a comic spin on David Fincher’s The Game’ and I can see that. Personally, I found The Game (1997) interesting but not great – a blatant if unconscious rip-off of an Agatha Christie Parker Pyne story where an elaborately choreographed adventure goes turns into a real criminal escapade which then turns out to have been part of the elaborate choreography all along. Game Night plays whimsically with the fact that we never quite know whether we’re watching a murder mystery game or a ‘real’ crime caper playing out.

Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman star as a hugely competitive couple, Annie and Max, who host regular game nights for an array of comic stock-figure friends. When Max’s annoyingly successful brother, Brook, decides to host a game night of his own, the couple knows that he’s going to outdo them. And, sure enough, Brook announces that he has enlisted top-notch actors to play out an interactive murder mystery. These actors, he tells them, are so great that they never break character. The next thing anyone knows, armed thugs break in, fight Brook, and kidnap him as the hapless guests laugh and applaud.

While Annie, Max, and the others set about trying to find clues, three actors in masks turn up and scratch their heads at what appears to be a real-life crime scene. So, is the kidnapping real or part of a game?

I don’t want to go into the plot in great detail because part of the fun comes from watching it unfold. That said, the real fun lies in the slapstick comedy and throwaway lines. Game Night feels like a cheap comedy done expensively and every second is wonderfully rewarding. It’s so rare to find light entertainment that doesn’t feature anything problematic, but I’m delighted to say there’s no misogyny, racism, transphobia, homophobia, or antisemitism in this film. There are just some very funny scenes. My favourite part involves Max trying the clean blood off a white dog and making it worse. Another memorable routine concerns Annie trying to perform an ad-hock operation, sterilising a knife and the wound with white wine.

Mark Perez has penned a light and consistently funny script, with excellent lines – ‘You’re a double threat,’ says Billy Magnusson’s ditzy playboy to his date, an out-of-his-league Sharon Hogan. ‘You’ve got brains and you’re British’ – and old school physical comedy – at one point, almost the entire cast chases each other around a country house, passing a Faberg√© Egg like a baton. Perez is served well by slick direction from John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein and entertaining cameos from recognisable figures like Michael C. Hall. Jesse Plemons, who recently starred in an amazing episode of Black Mirror, plays the tragicomically needy policeman next door who can’t get over his divorce and who exacts an elaborate revenge when he isn’t invited to play.

If this summary makes the whole thing sound piecemeal and incoherent, that’s because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And this is part of the charm. Although Game Night has an easy-to-follow plot, it isn’t something to analyse or overthink. It is something to sit back and enjoy, to laugh through without splitting your sides. On the journey home, I saw a tweet along the lines of, ‘Game Night is a great reflection of a world in which fake news and real news are becoming interchangeable,’ and I just thought, ‘Ugh. No. It’s funny.’ For context, I more or less think it’s impossible to read too much into a text, and am a staunch defender of the analysis of popular culture. But not Game Night. It’s just entertainment, and it’s bloody well-played.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Mini reviews #14

Tea for Three (1939) by Margery Vosper. Isn't the internet wonderful? The very day I published my review of Murder on the Second Floor, mentioning Vosper's 8-page adaptation of an Agatha Christie short story, not one but two friends very kindly offered to send me a copy. I'm happy to report that this is a wonderful vignette, fully maintaining the spirit of Christie's 'Accident'.  I'd love to see a performance of Vosper's script as part of a larger entertainment event. It's fun and twisty and typical Agatha Christie.

'Lamb to the Slaughter' (1953) by Roald Dahl. If you know any of Dahl's adult short stories, you probably know this one. An exemplum of black comedy, it's the one about a woman who whacks her husband over the head with a frozen leg of lamb. I didn't think of it as crime fiction until, last year, I found myself recommending it to one of my creative writing students who wanted to pen quirky crime. It's definitely useful for authors of crime, comedy, suspense, and psychological fiction to study. And it's bloody good fun to read.

The Secret Seven Short Story Collection (2007) by Enid Blyton. Not my cup of ginger beer.

Gallowglass (2018) by Middle Ground Theatre. Barbara Vine's (Ruth Rendell's) 1990 novel has been newly dramatised by Margaret May Hobbs for this touring production. I thoroughly enjoyed the show, which was largely down to the excellent, fabulously twisty and psychologically nuanced plot, centred on a kidnapping operation. The lead character, a typically Vinean troubled youth, is played flawlessly by Joe Eyre. The other actors vary in quality from outstanding (Paul Opacic) to frustrating, and I wasn't convinced about the direction. I also wasn't sure when it was supposed to be set, as we're in a pre-internet world of landlines and newspapers but the backdrops show contemporary billboards etc. If anything, seeing Gallowglass on stage made me long to read the book.

Money in the Morgue (2018) by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy. There could be no better choice than Stella Duffy to complete Ngaio Marsh's unfinished Roderick Alleyn novel, and she doesn't disappoint.  It's a shockingly brilliant act of ventriloquism, and Duffy does a better Marsh than Marsh herself. Starting from a less-than-ideal premise (in a military hospital, some money goes missing), Duffy weaves an ingenious plot in entertaining style. The solution bamboozled me but it's totally fair. Alleyn is in fine form, and his adventures are peppered with theatrical allusions and society secrets. New Zealand itself is a living, breathing character, and the absent presence of the Second World War is felt with chilling immediacy. Money in the Morgue is a book to cherish and a masterpiece within its genre.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

The Daughter of Time (1951) is one of the most famous detective novels of the twentieth century and it remains the volume for which Josephine Tey is best known. In 1990, the Crime Writers’ Association voted it the number one top crime novel of all time, and it was in the news again recently when the body of its subject, Richard III, was recovered from beneath a car park in Leicester. I know I wasn’t the first nor the last person to have their understanding of that man completely reconfigured by reading this novel.

I first read The Daughter of Time as a sixth-former. It wasn’t my first Tey but it was the first one that made an impression. The central conceit is bizarre enough to be iconic. Inspector Alan Grant, confined to a hospital bed, is looking for something to pass the time. He ends up applying his keen policeman’s mind to a problem surrounding the historical figure of Richard III. Suspecting that Richard might not be the monster we all know him as, Grant uncovers a web of lies and propaganda, configuring Richard as a victim of political machinations and
even absolving him of responsibility for the infamous case of the princes in the tower.

A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to hear that a serialised and apparently unabridged reading of the whole novel was being aired on BBC Radio 4 Extra. If you’re based in the UK, you can still listen to all episodes here. This review is based on listening to the reading, rather than an a close rereading of the text – although I have, of course, read it a few times.

One thing, beyond the obvious, that makes the story so special is Grant himself. He’s a great and understated detective; a poetry loving policemen before they were ten-a-penny, he also lives with a constant mental crisis, splitting his mind into distinct personalities and haunted by the fact that he will never be a manly man. Nearly all of Grant’s cases spring from his own fascination with the victim. He develops an unhealthy and uncanny obsession with the deceased – usually a beautiful man – and the case of Richard III is no different. Grant gets lost staring into the eyes of etchings and finds himself unable to reconcile such a hypnotic face with the horrible stories attached to it. That’s his starting point.

Treating the historical mystery as a contemporary psychological criminal investigation, Grant sees everything from a fresh angle, allowing his creator to gently satirise the naivet√© of traditional historians, who unwittingly tow the line of archaic propaganda. There are frequent allusions to ‘the Sainted Moore’, referencing the authoritative but factually flawed writings of Thomas Moore. As one of Grant’s helpers, the excellent Marta Hallard states, with cutting diplomacy: ‘Perhaps when you’re grubbing about with tattered records, you don’t have time to learn about people. I don’t mean the people in records, but real-life people — flesh and blood’.

Of course, Grant can’t do everything by himself from a hospital bed. Not only would that be impractical in the pre-internet age, it would also be incredibly boring for the reader. One of his helpers is the actor Marta Hallard, whom Tey’s readers will already know, and another is an American student who develops a love of research purely by accident whilst helping him out. This student, Brent Carradine, provides our policeman with his fill of original documents found in the British Museum. He (Brent) is planning to write a book about Richard. When he asks if Grant would prefer to do the honours – since this is his case – Grant responds that he would never write a book. ‘It’s my considered opinion that too many books are written as it is’, he adds. And, glancing up for a moment from a detective novel that really pushes the boundaries of what a detective novel can do, the reader agrees.

There is an element of artifice in this novel, and I’m not just talking about the rather wonderful parodies of historical fiction in and out of which the author dips (Tey herself was, of course, also an historical novelist and playwright, under a second pseudonym, Gordon Daviot). No, the whole thing, the five century-long puzzle, must be tied up and resolved by the time Alan Grant gets out of hospital. And, of course, it is. When he emerges from hospital, having found out the truth, Grant makes perhaps my favourite comment in all of Tey’s work: ‘How small and queer the world looks viewed the right way up.’

Grant’s/Tey’s version of the Richard III is not quite the story we have now, but it is closer to it than the traditional Shakespearean line. It is frankly remarkable that a genre novel has been so influential. It’s not my favourite crime novel – it’s not even my favourite Tey – but the fact that it exists, and in such an entertaining and accessible form, is brilliant.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

I must know the opening scene to The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-2) by heart. Of course, I’ve read the book at least half a dozen times, and the opening is the kind of scene that sticks in the mind. It’s also the opening after which so many Sherlock Holmes pastiche openings are modelled. The number of stage and screen adaptations of  Baskervilles I’ve seen must be well into double figures, and from what I remember not one has deviated from this scene, with Holmes and Watson discussing a yet-to-appear guest, deducing his character from a walking stick he left in their flat.

It’s the most famous Sherlock Holmes novel, and one of the best-known detective stories – at least by title – of all time. I recently reread Baskervilles as part of a research project and found myself, as always, amazed by how funny the writing style can be.  The humour kicks off in that opening scene, when Watson tries to apply Holmes’s methods of deduction and thinks he’s done well, only to be put in his place by a beautifully condescending Holmes. It’s sometimes hard to remember – and Arthur Conan Doyle himself didn’t believe it to be true – that Holmes is a very funny character. He’s acerbic and dismissive and it’s fun to see him put down everyone around him. I always want his deductions to be wrong but, of course, they never are.

The other thing that surprised me on this reading was how much like a golden age murder mystery Baskervilles is. It’s certainly a gothic story, replete with fog, moors on a which a man can lose his life, a house without electricity, creepy siblings, even creepier servants, and a family heritage of degeneracy. And, true, the murderer’s identity is revealed just over half-way through. But there are clues and deductions and the narrative is not finally resolved until all the loose ends have been tied up.

Doyle got the idea for The Hound of the Baskervilles on a golfing holiday in Norfolk (my home county). In the first printing of the story as a serial in the strand, he thanked ‘my friend Mr Fletcher Robinson’ for telling him about a legend in Dartmoor concerning a ghostly hound. After a few field trips with Robinson, Doyle planned and wrote his most famous work.

I probably don’t need to tell you the story, but it involves a legend surrounding Baskerville Hall in Dartmoor and the ancient Baskerville family. The legend concerns a giant, spectral dog, and the latest baronet, Sir Charles Baskerville, is said to have been scared to death by the legend. Holmes is called in when Baskerville’s doctor feels uneasy about footprints found near the body.
‘A man’s or a woman’s?’ 
[…] ‘Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!’
Holmes sends Watson to Baskerville Hall with the new baronet, Sir Henry, and a plot soon emerges – a plot concerning ‘refined, cold-blooded deliberate murder.’ There are deep-rooted family secrets to be uncovered, and it turns out that this part of the world is a hotbed of sexual impropriety. Doyle offers his readers a cynical look at heritage and a surprisingly honest take on marriage.

Formally, The Hound of the Baskervilles is like a long short story with elements of the mid-nineteenth century epistolary novel. If I was teaching a course on the development of the crime novel, I’d place this one between The Moonstone and Trent’s Last Case on the syllabus.

This hasn’t been an immensely detailed review because I am assuming that most people at least know the story. What I’ve tried to highlight are the things that excited me on the umpteenth reading. I’m sure I’ll get something else out of it on the umpteen-and-first. If you haven’t read The Hound of the Baskervilles, I would strongly recommend it – as if it needed my recommendation.